Power and the Presidency, From Kennedy to Obama

For the past 50 years, the commander in chief has steadily expanded presidential power, particularly in foreign policy

John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother Robert, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (AP Photo)
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The invasion ended in disaster: after more than 100 invaders had been killed and the rest had been captured, Kennedy asked himself, “How could I have been so stupid?” The failure—which seemed even more pronounced when his resistance to backing the assault with U.S. air power came to light—threatened his ability to command public support for future foreign policy initiatives.

To counter perceptions of poor leadership, the White House issued a statement saying, “President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as President he bears sole responsibility.” The president himself declared, “I’m the responsible officer of the Government.” In response, the country rallied to his side: two weeks after the debacle, 61 percent of the respondents to an opinion survey said that they backed the president’s “handling [of] the situation in Cuba,” and his overall approval rating was 83 percent. Kennedy joked, “The worse I do, the more popular I get.”

Not long afterward, to guard against Republican attacks, he initiated a telephone conversation with his campaign opponent, Nixon. “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn’t it?” he asked rhetorically. “I mean, who gives a s--- if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?” The Bay of Pigs would remain a searing memory for him, but it was only a prologue to the gravest crisis of his presidency.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to place medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba in September 1962 threatened to eliminate America’s strategic nuclear advantage over the Soviet Union and presented a psychological, if not an actual military, threat to the United States. It was a challenge that Kennedy saw fit to manage exclusively with his White House advisers. The Executive Committee of the National Security Council—ExComm, as it became known—included not a single member of Congress or the judiciary, only Kennedy’s national security officials and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and his vice president, Lyndon Johnson. Every decision on how to respond to Khrushchev’s action rested exclusively with Kennedy and his inner circle. On October 16, 1962—while his administration was gathering intelligence on the new threat, but before making it public—he betrayed a hint of his isolation by reciting, during a speech to journalists at the State Department, a version of a rhyme by a bullfighter named Domingo Ortega:

Bullfight critics row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza de toros
But only one is there who knows
And he’s the one who fights the bull.

While ExComm deliberated, concerns about domestic and international opinion were never far from Kennedy’s thinking. He knew that if he responded ineffectually, domestic opponents would attack him for setting back the nation’s security, and allies abroad would doubt his resolve to meet Soviet threats to their safety. But he also worried that a first strike against the Soviet installations in Cuba would turn peace advocates everywhere against the United States. Kennedy told former Secretary of State Dean Acheson a U.S. bombing raid would be seen as “Pearl Harbor in reverse.”

To avoid being seen as an aggressor, Kennedy initiated a marine “quarantine” of Cuba, in which U.S. ships would intercept vessels suspected of delivering weapons. (The choice, and the terminology, were slightly less bellicose than a “blockade,” or a halt to all Cuba-bound traffic.) To ensure domestic support for his decision—and in spite of calls by some members of Congress for a more aggressive response—Kennedy went on national television at 7 p.m. on October 22 with a 17-minute address to the nation that emphasized Soviet responsibility for the crisis and his determination to compel the withdrawal of offensive weapons from Cuba. His intent was to build a consensus not merely for the quarantine but also for any potential military conflict with the Soviet Union.

That potential, however, went unfulfilled: after 13 days in which the two sides might have come to nuclear blows, the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in exchange for a guarantee that the United States would respect the island’s sovereignty (and, secretly, remove U.S. missiles from Italy and Turkey). This peaceful resolution strengthened both Kennedy’s and the public’s affinity for unilateral executive control of foreign policy. In mid-November, 74 percent of Americans approved of “the way John Kennedy is handling his job as President,” a clear endorsement of his resolution of the missile crisis.


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