By Robert Dallek
In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland, but won the deciding electoral vote, declared that Providence had dictated his elevation to the highest office.
Providence indeed, a Republican Party boss sniffed, confiding that the new president "would never know how many people were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to put him in that office".
Barack Obama's campaign suggests he will be become an unforgettable personality
Today, it is doubtful that more than a handful of Americans would know anything at all about Harrison, his election or what he did as president. Nor would most voters know much, if anything, about other more recent presidencies.
Occasionally, however, we get a landmark election that resonates for years. Barack Obama's victory was one of those moments. The first African American to win the presidency, the second youngest man ever elected to a first term (only John Kennedy was younger), and the largest voter turnout in decades add up to much more than a passing mention in the history books.
Of course, if Obama were to prove a great bust - an orator without a ground-breaking programme or the wherewithal to put across more than just the most commonplace legislative and foreign policy initiatives - he'd become another one of the many forgotten presidents, or at best an asterisk as the country's first black chief executive.
I'm betting otherwise. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D.Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F.Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan - the most memorable of the 18 presidents who served in the last century - Obama seems likely to become an unforgettable personality who presided over a transforming administration.
All those presidents made themselves into household names by the power of their rhetoric and larger-than-life characters.
All of them had the gift of gab: Theodore Roosevelt used what he called the "bully pulpit" to bring Americans to his side, while Wilson gave speeches which some said were so lyrical that you could have danced to them.
FDR's "fireside chats" on the radio remain a yardstick for every aspiring politician to measure themselves against; Truman's "Give'em hell Harry" 1948 campaign stands as a model of how the spoken word can convert reluctant voters. JFK's brilliantly crafted inauguration speech and live televised press conferences have kept him in the country's memory for almost five decades; more recently, Reagan's charm and ability to reach mass audiences made him "the Great Communicator."
There is no better example of the power of presidential personality than the anecdote about the woman who stopped Eleanor Roosevelt on the street after FDR's death to say: "I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government."
Like Roosevelt and Truman, one of Obama's greatest strengths is the force of his rhetoric
Judging from the extraordinary crowds that consistently turned out for Obama's rallies and cheered his pronouncements on the need for change and hope, he is a match for all of these presidential predecessors as an exceptional orator. None of them, moreover, inspired as much enthusiasm during a campaign as Obama has over the last two years, for all their vaunted charisma. His campaign will stand as a model that future aspirants for the White House will try to imitate.
He has single-handedly rekindled hope that he can turn the country in more desirable directions. He has created a rapport with millions of Americans that bodes well for a successful presidential term.
How will it compare with the most consequential administrations of the 20th century? And what is it likely to include?
Obama will need two terms to match the most successful recent presidencies. At the end of eight years he will want to describe his achievements as worthy of comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's and Wilson's progressivism, that initially made the government an arbiter of economic and social justice; or with FDR's New Deal, that did so much to humanise the American industrial system.
He will want them compared with Truman's containment strategy that was the predicate for Cold War victory, and Kennedy's "New Frontier" and successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis - the most dangerous moment in the Cold War. Or, with Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society", which fostered the civil rights revolution that opened the way for Obama's presidency, and with Reagan's revolution that launched the period of conservative rule in which government was seen as not the solution, but as the problem.
As president he will face many challenges - not least to live up to the expectations he has created for reform of the economy and of the health insurance system, for weaning America off fossil fuels and Middle Eastern oil, and for progress on some of the most intractable problems of foreign policy.
Finding an exit from Iraq is certain to stand near the top of his agenda, but will jostle with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Middle East peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for his attention - not to mention the challenge of negotiations with Iran and North Korea to inhibit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
As with every administration, there will be unforeseen developments that demand the greatest political agility. If Obama's campaign that brought him from relative obscurity in Illinois to the White House in so brief a time is any true measure of the man, we can have every hope that he will acquit himself admirably in the days ahead - and claim a place in the pantheon of America's most distinguished presidents.