New book explores Obama and JFK's strategies

There are striking parallels in the candidacies of Presidents Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, but the most troubling one may be what they had to do to get elected, says political science professor Robert C. Smith.

As Smith writes in his new book, Kennedy and Obama both had to downplay their racial and religious identities in order to win over the electorate, remaining silent on some of the most significant issues for Irish Catholics and African Americans respectively. It's a practice that Smith calls "the politics of ethnic avoidance."

A photo of Robert C. Smith, professor of political science

Professor of Political Science Robert C. Smith

"If the price of ethnic incorporation at the highest levels of elective office is ignoring the legitimate needs and aspirations of one's people," Smith writes in the book, "then the nation's aspiration to become a truly inclusive, multiethnic democracy has a flaw."

"I think it is almost a tragedy that American society in the 1960s and today requires the practice of the politics of ethnic avoidance," Smith said.

"John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance," published this month by SUNY Press, is a thorough comparison of the first two ethnic presidents. But Smith also sees it as a natural outgrowth of his career's work as a scholar of African American politics for the last four decades.

When Kennedy was elected, Smith suggests, he came from an Irish Catholic community that was fully integrated into the American political, economic and social systems. By contrast, Obama came from a black community that has been only partially integrated.

The paradox, Smith says, is that opposition to Kennedy's candidacy was much stronger and more organized than the opposition against Obama’s candidacy.

At the time of Kennedy's election, 25 percent of Protestants surveyed said they would not vote for a qualified Catholic for president. By contrast, in 2008 only 5 percent of people said they would not vote for a qualified black candidate.

The lack of overt racism in the 2008 campaign surprised Smith, who thought that Obama's opponents might make "some effort to subtly, indirectly address the kinds of racial stereotypes that are still present."

But he noted that the media in particular would have condemned such a move immediately. "The norm of racial equality, the idea of racial equality has become so powerful in the culture today, that people dare not risk crossing it," Smith said.

Nevertheless, Obama realized just as Kennedy did that he could not campaign on any issues that could be viewed as giving "special attention" to his ethnic group. Kennedy avoided a contentious fight over federal aid to religious schools, says Smith. "I think Obama understood as well that he could not fully embrace the kinds of issues of concern to blacks, like racialized poverty or affirmative action," he said.

Both Obama and Kennedy won by narrow margins, helped by this strategy. "Ethnic avoidance in both cases was necessary, and in Kennedy's case was indispensible to him winning," Smith said.

Many people have commented on the similar personalities of Obama and Kennedy, describing them both as intellectual, ambitious, charismatic and often coolly detached. And their presidencies have paved the way for other ethnic candidates seeking the highest office in the land.

But Smith believes their trailblazing has come at a troubling, uncomfortable price. With Kennedy's presidency cut short, it is difficult to know whether he would have eventually spoken out on Catholic issues. But Smith points out that the full incorporation of Irish Catholics by 1960 made this less of a critical issue than Obama's silence on African American issues in the 21st century.

Obama's successful strategy of ethnic avoidance may mean that "increasingly there will be few black leaders willing to speak to and for the conditions of black people," Smith said. "It is concerning that Obama may become a role model in this way for young black would-be political leaders."

Smith's book is equally blunt in its assessment: "In the long run the election of the first black president in 2008 is most likely to be of little -- beyond the symbolic -- consequence for black America," Smith writes. "Put more starkly, at the end of his presidency, if one asks what difference the first black president made for the material well-being of African Americans, the answer will be none."

--University Communications