JFK’s “How To” Manual

President Barack Obama appears to want all of his decisions to be 100 percent politically safe. The trouble is there are few meaningful decisions a president can make, especially on matters vital to the country, that are 100 percent politically safe. Take, for instance, how President John F. Kennedy got the U.S. Senate to ratify his Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, the first nuclear arms treaty ever signed with the Soviet Union. There was intense bipartisan opposition to the treaty. Cold War liberals, Republicans, and John Birchers attacked the president for jeopardizing American “national security.” They said the terms of the treaty could not be verified. They said it made it easier for the Soviets to hide the yields of their nuclear tests. And they said it proved that Kennedy was “soft” on Communism and being taken for a ride by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

President Kennedy did not capitulate to the knee-jerk criticism of the treaty but forged ahead anyway despite its lack of support on Capitol Hill. Common sense held that the treaty had no chance of Senate ratification. In the Cold War environment in Congress Kennedy understood that getting the Senate’s necessary two-thirds approval would be “almost in the nature of a miracle.”

And what did President Kennedy do? He mobilized a “citizens committee” and committed his administration to waging an all-out campaign to win Senate approval of the treaty even if it cost him the 1964 election. He brought together business and religious leaders, scientists, farmers (the radioactive fallout from the tests was contaminating milk and other agricultural products), scholars, university presidents, unions, newspapers, and liberal organizations such as SANE (National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), UWF (United World Federalists), and ADA (Americans for Democratic Action). At the right moment, President Kennedy went on television and appealed directly to the American people in favor of the treaty. On July 26, 1963, he told the nation: “This treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children and our grandchildren, and they have no lobby here in Washington.”

It was not a 100 percent politically safe decision for Kennedy to make.

But it paid off. In September 1963, the Senate approved the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 80 to 19. What’s more, President Kennedy had mobilized a coalition behind reducing the threat of nuclear war and nuclear armaments that he could tap for future actions.

President Obama threatens to make recess appointments if the Senate keeps obstructing him. (I’ll believe it when I see it.) We’ve heard claims that “reconciliation” is an option with the health care bill. (I’ll believe it when I see it.) The Employee Free Choice Act? Climate Change? There’s no 100 percent politically safe way to pass these measures. Obama took so many daring chances during the 2008 presidential campaign but when it comes to governing it seems he has become risk averse. The Democrats’ slogan for 2010 should be: “If Ben Nelson Doesn’t Like It — We Won’t Do It!”

Every time JFK stood up for what he truly believed in despite its political risks his popularity shot straight up. It appears the Obama White House, with Rahm Emanuel leading the charge, has accepted the idea that America is a “center-right” country and therefore trying to pass anything boldly progressive would be politically disadvantageous. It’s one thing to try out policies, see if they work, and then shift gears and try new ones. But it’s an entirely different thing not even to try to put into effect bold policies because you’ve already convinced yourself they’re doomed to fail and aren’t 100 percent politically “safe.” That’s not what President Kennedy did. That’s the stance of a loser. And if Americans agree on anything it’s that they don’t like losers.

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post.

Published by the LA Progressive on February 11, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).