On many of the great issues of the day, President Barack Obama has drawn some criticism for a lack of decisive leadership. But he has shown little hesitation in taking sides in some high-profile Democratic primaries that could just as readily divide the party in 2010 as unite it.

In Colorado, Obama is backing appointed Sen. Michael Bennet over former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. In Pennsylvania, the president is supporting former Republican and newly minted Democratic senator, Arlen Specter, over Rep. Joe Sestak. In New York, the administration is clearing the primary field for appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Already, the White House has pressured Democratic Reps. Steve Israel and Carolyn Maloney to stay out of the race. And Obama emissaries have put the heat on New York’s poll-challenged Democratic governor, David Paterson, to drop any thoughts of a 2010 election bid.

White House supporters say it is good politics for Obama to try and fashion the strongest possible Democratic lineup next year and argue that his hands-on approach is consistent with his role as leader of the party. Critics, though, complain that the administration’s tactics are heavy-handed and are undemocratic, denying Democratic voters a fair chance to make their own choices.

To some, Obama’s engagement in intra-party affairs is a reminder of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ill-starred involvement in the Democratic congressional primaries of 1938. Roosevelt’s unsuccessful effort to “purge” conservative foes is remembered by history as one of the biggest missteps ever made by the politically canny FDR.

His “overreach” in the primaries was followed by huge Republican congressional gains that fall, which established the “conservative coalition” of Republicans and conservative Democrats as an effective force on Capitol Hill for a generation to come. And maybe even worse for FDR, the whole debacle left the impression that the president was both power hungry and politically impotent at the same time.

To be sure, Obama’s situation these days is a bit different than Roosevelt’s 70 years ago. Pragmatism appears to be guiding the current White House, while the purpose of FDR’s engagement in 1938 was almost completely ideological–to reward his followers within the party, defeat his enemies, and to set off a realignment of American politics that would pit a purely liberal Democratic Party against a purely conservative Republican Party.

To do that, Roosevelt took a two-track approach in the 1938 Democratic primaries. He supported New Deal allies, a number of whom–such as Sens. Alben Barkley of Kentucky and Claude Pepper of Florida–won re-nomination. But more famously, FDR sought to “purge” some big-name conservative foes of his administration. Some he took on covertly, some directly. Three senators from south of the Mason-Dixon line he engaged head on–Walter George of Georgia, Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina and Millard Tydings of Maryland. FDR personally appeared in all three states, raising the banner of hand-picked challengers against his senatorial targets. But in each case, the incumbent won and FDR’s candidate lost. The only noteworthy success of the “purge” campaign came in New York, where an administration foe, House Rules Committee Chairman John O’Connor, lost his primary.

Since then, the role of presidents in their party’s congressional primaries has largely been either muted or subterranean.

Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan maintained a hands-off approach to party primaries. Reagan enfolded himself in the GOP’s “11th Commandment” (speak no ill of fellow Republicans), and would not even support his daughter, Maureen, in her failed 1982 bid for the Republican Senate nomination in California.

Eisenhower was just as adamant about staying out of GOP primaries. “I have always refused in advance of any primary or of any selection of [a] Republican candidate for any office to intervene in any way,” Ike said in 1958, “and I wouldn’t want to be used either directly or indirectly in such a campaign.”

Democratic presidents with an activist bent, such as Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, only occasionally dabbled in party primaries. JFK made a point of staying in the background during his brother, Edward’s, successful Senate primary run in Massachusetts in 1962, although it was obvious to everyone that the viability of Teddy’s candidacy was based on being the president’s brother.

Bill Clinton was also very selective in his involvement in Democratic primaries. He did make a well-publicized trip to Chicago in early 1994 to boost embattled House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski in his primary race. Rostenkowski was under federal investigation at the time and would lose his seat in the fall. But he was a powerful player in the health care debate in early 1994 and with Clinton’s help he was able to win re-nomination.

Still, Clinton’s engagement in the Illinois primary was the exception rather than the rule. Said Joan Baggett, director of political affairs in the Clinton White House at then time: “As a practice, we try strenuously to avoid an endorsement in a primary.”

The most apt model for Obama in terms of primary intervention may be his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. While Bush’s administration was seen as highly ideological, the White House’s role in party primaries was often quite pragmatic. It was supportive of candidates, rather than oppositional, and aid was offered struggling GOP incumbents of all stripes. That included embattled Republicans far to the left of the administration, such as Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Their closely fought primary victories (Specter in 2004, Chafee in 2006) were in large part due to White House assistance.

The challenge for the Obama White House will be to act as deftly as the Bush team did. But thus far, Obama’s dip into intra-party politics has gotten some poor reviews. Response to the administration’s attempt to get Paterson to stand aside has tended to create sympathy for the governor. A New York Times editorial last month referred to “bullying from the White House.” A Marist poll of New York voters found that fully 60 percent felt it was wrong for White House to try and push Paterson into retirement, including a majority of Empire State Democrats.

Meanwhile, Obama’s involvement in next year’s Senate primaries has ruffled some feathers. And it brought a warning from Specter’s Democratic challenger, Joe Sestak, of something that FDR no doubt learned in 1938. “To be seen like you are selecting winners and losers in a party-boss way will breed some resentment,” Sestak was quoted as saying last month in the New York Times, “and in a longer term it won’t bode well.”

Table 1. Obama and FDR: An Unwanted Point of Comparison?

In some circles, President Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt are considered political soulmates. But, so far in Obama’s young presidency, the most direct comparison between the two may be their willingness to take sides in Democratic primary politics. FDR did so famously in 1938 with mixed results, at best. While a few of the “New Deal” congressmen that he favored were renominated, Roosevelt was conspicuously less successful in his effort to “purge” conservative Democratic senators. Obama has followed suit with a big leap into 2010 Democratic primary politics, although his reasons for doing so appear to be more pragmatic than ideological (as was the case with FDR).

Note: FDR offered varying degrees of support or opposition to a number of Democratic officeholders inthe party’s 1938 primaries. Those listed above were arguably the candidates whom FDR was most prominently engaged for or against.