Political Campaigning: The Common (Grass)Roots of Obama and Kennedy?


“None of our politicians since Franklin has found such a direct contact to the masses”. Eleanor Roosevelt about John F. Kennedy (Photo: http://bit.ly/iWNn4)

In these days, Barack Obama is negotiating with the Republicans over the national debt limit and, in the end, over America’s creditworthiness and the country’s future rating on the financial markets. The talks prove to be extremely complicated for the man who had been carried in the White House on a wave of enthusiasm. And the next election campaign is just around the corner. The question is: Can he repeat his success from 2008 where he ran a brilliant grassroots campaign?

While reading Robert Dallek’s fascinating biography on John F. Kennedy, I found so much support for the common comparison between Obama and JFK 50 years earlier.

Both were members of a minority in the US (JFK: catholic, Obama: Afro-American). Both were considered to be the underdog in the election campaign or throughout the nomination process (Nixon, Clinton). Both did not come from families, which had run the White House before.

Both were young and sympathetic. Both were Democrats. Both were criticized for being too young and inexperienced. Both held great speeches. Both had similar slogans and themes for their campaigns (JFK: “the new frontier” / “let’s get the county moving again”, Obama: “yes we can”).

Finally, both won the elections because they had been able to activate minorities in the vote, i.e. the non-white, non-protestant, non-mainstream voters. Eleanor Roosevelt said about JFK: “None of our politicians since Franklin has found such a direct contact to the masses”.

Yet, from my point of view, here also lies the decisive difference between the campaigning of JFK and Obama.

While both won these minorities, they achieved this goal through different strategies: Whereas Kennedy strongly benefitted from the massive funding of his campaign by his father, mostly via the mass media and advertising, Obama won due to his revolutionary grassroots campaign in which he won thousands of volunteers to actively support his campaign.

Hence, one could well argue that the following quote by Henry Brandon (Sunday Times) about JFK suits both candidates: “He is a child of his time. He knows intuitively how to make use of the modern communication technologies for his aims”. Being a child of JFK’s time meant to make use of the mass media, their omnipresence and to travel the country. Campaigning in 2008 meant dealing with social media and participatory forms of communication as well.

Obama’s grassroots campaign became part of his image as a presidential candidate who seeks the direct contact with the voter and thereby fosters the democratic spirit. Therefore, the Obama campaign fostered the widely supported belief that “personal contacting by the major parties is only likely to grow in significance and importance in future presidential contests” (Panagopoulos/Francia 2009: 328).

The question for 2012 is: Can Obama repeat this success? Is it possible to reactivate all this volunteer energy after four years of grim negotiations and political arguments in office?

While classic mass media campaigning proved to be successful over and over again, JFK did not have the chance to make the case for himself a second time.