Hoping for Audacity

How John F. Kennedy grew into the presidency, and what it means for Obama

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JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic National Congress (DNC) event ahead of November 2 midterm elections in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2010.

Two years into his term, chastened by events and buffeted by criticism from the left wing of his party, the young President hinted at a steep learning curve. "The responsibilities placed upon the United States are greater than I imagined them to be," he acknowledged. "And there are greater limitations on our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined... It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments."

Fifty years after his election, John F. Kennedy's frank appraisal of the limits of presidential power is not the only parallel between the first Catholic President and the first African American to occupy the Oval Office. During the 2008 Democratic slugfest, both Caroline and Ted Kennedy portrayed Barack Obama, then a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois, as a latter-day New Frontiersman, able to marshal long-dormant energies and inspire the young, in particular, to put service before self. Other comparisons suggested themselves. Backed by a stylish wife and photogenic children, each promoted a message of generational change. Kennedy owned television, while Obama prefers social networking to the East Room press conference. Even before assuming office, Kennedy, the self-professed "idealist without illusions," had complained about liberals who "want their arses kissed all the time." It is a sentiment Obama might well second.

For all this, their presidencies are necessarily different. "For it is the fate of this generation... to live with a struggle we did not start, in a world we did not make," Kennedy asserted in his second State of the Union address. Yet the Cold War of which he spoke bred a popular consensus notably absent from today's murky conflict between Western modernity and those who seek martyrdom by targeting the theologically suspect.

Kennedy's election was a source of pride to ethnic and blue collar voters, a group stubbornly resistant to Obama's appeal. JFK operated outside the alternate universe of the Internet, without the constant distraction of made-for-cable controversies. New tools of communication have, paradoxically, contributed to the fragmenting of America, even as they have discouraged the search for political common ground and supplied a soapbox for conspiracists and rumor mongers.

The fringe has always been with us, of course. The Kennedy presidency was less than a year old when the National Indignation Convention met in Dallas. The convention's final speaker evoked hearty applause by upbraiding alleged moderates in their ranks who were content merely to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren. "I'm for hanging him," he told his fellow indignants.

The later coarsening of public life makes the early '60s sound like the Era of Good Feelings. Today's extremism wears a pinstripe suit. Case in point: when U.S. Steel in the spring of 1962 double-crossed the Kennedy White House by raising prices after workers had accepted a hold-the-line contract, the President applied a rhetorical blowtorch to company executives. His brother, the U.S. Attorney General, convened a grand jury to investigate the price hikes. Big Steel backed down, and the Administration was tagged as antibusiness. But no one likened Kennedy's jawboning to Hitler's invasion of Poland, an analogy used by Wall Street moneyman Stephen Schwarzman in characterizing Obama's proposal to increase taxes on private-equity firms. Many in the CNBC Nation cheered him on.

As for the economic crisis that has hijacked the Obama presidency, economists agree that his actions, many grounded in equally unpopular decisions made by the Bush Administration, have restored stability to the markets. The much loathed—and even more misunderstood—Troubled Asset Relief Program, far from costing taxpayers $700 billion as estimated, may yet produce a small profit. With Detroit automakers showing renewed signs of competitiveness, fewer sneers are directed at "Government Motors." Even AIG is contemplating life after life support.

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