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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Fifty Januaries ago, under a pallid sun and amid bitter winds, John F. Kennedy swore the oath that every president had taken since 1789 and then delivered one of the most memorable inaugural addresses in the American canon. “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom,” the 35th president began. After noting that “the world is very different now” from the world of the Framers because “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” he announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and made the pledge that has echoed ever since: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

After discoursing on the challenges of eradicating hunger and disease and the necessity of global cooperation in the cause of peace, he declared that “[i]n the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Then he issued the call for which he is best remembered: “And so, my fellows Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The address was immediately recognized as ex-ceptionally eloquent—“a rallying cry” (the Chicago Tribune), “a speech of rededication” (the Philadelphia Bulletin), “a call to action which Americans have needed to hear for many a year” (the Denver Post)—and acutely attuned to a moment that promised both advances in American prowess and grave peril from Soviet expansion. As James Reston wrote in his column for the New York Times, “The problems before the Kennedy Administration on Inauguration Day are much more difficult than the nation has yet come to believe.”

In meeting the challenges of his time, Kennedy sharply expanded the power of the presidency, particularly in foreign affairs. The 50th anniversary of his inauguration highlights the consequences—for him, for his successors and for the American people.

To be sure, the President’s control over foreign affairs had been growing since the Theodore Roosevelt administration (and still grows today). TR’s acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone preceded Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I, which was a prelude to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s management of the run-up to the victorious American effort in World War II. In the 1950s, Harry S. Truman’s response to the Soviet threat included the decision to fight in Korea without a Congressional declaration of war, and Dwight Eisenhower used the Central Intelligence Agency and brinksmanship to contain Communism. Nineteenth-century presidents had had to contend with Congressional influences in foreign affairs, and particularly with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But by the early 1960s, the president had become the undisputed architect of U.S. foreign policy.

One reason for this was the emergence of the United States as a great power with global obligations. Neither Wilson nor FDR could have imagined taking the country to war without a Congressional declaration, but the exigencies of the cold war in the 1950s heightened the country’s reliance on the president to defend its interests. Truman could enter the Korean conflict without having to seek Congressional approval simply by describing the deployment of U.S. troops as a police action taken in conjunction with the United Nations.

But Truman would learn a paradoxical, and in his case bitter, corollary: with greater power, the president also had a greater need to win popular backing for his policies. After the Korean War had become a stalemate, a majority of Americans described their country’s participation in the conflict as a mistake—and Truman’s approval ratings fell into the twenties.

After Truman’s experience, Eisenhower understood that Americans still looked to the White House for answers to foreign threats—as long as those answers did not exceed certain limits in blood and treasure. By ending the fighting in Korea and holding Communist expansion to a minimum without another limited war, Eisenhower won re-election in 1956 and maintained public backing for his control of foreign affairs.


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