Kennedy and the New Frontier

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia,
sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners
will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
-- Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
By 1960 government had become an increasingly powerful force in people's lives. During the 1930s, The White House had initiated legislation and worked closely with Congress to ease the trauma of the Great Depression. New executive agencies were created to deal with many aspects of American life. The number of civilians employed by the federal government rose from 1 million to 3.8 million during World War II, then stabilized at 2.5 million throughout the 1950s. Federal expenditures, which had stood at $3.1 thousand-million in 1929, increased to $75 thousand-million in 1953 and passed $150 thousand-million in the 1960s.

Most Americans accepted government's expanded role, even as they disagreed about how far that expansion should continue. Democrats wanted the government to use its power to ensure growth and stability. They wanted to extend federal benefits for education, health and welfare. Republicans, while accepting government's basic and necessary responsibility, hoped to cap spending and restore a larger measure of individual initiative.

John F. Kennedy, Democratic victor in the election of 1960, was at 43 the youngest man ever to win the presidency. On television, in a series of debates with opponent Richard Nixon, he appeared able, articulate and energetic. In the campaign, he spoke of moving aggressively into the new decade, for "the New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not." In his first inaugural address he concluded with an eloquent plea: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." Throughout his brief presidency, Kennedy's special combination of grace, wit and style sustained his popularity and influenced generations of politicians to come.

Kennedy wanted to exert strong leadership to extend economic benefits to all citizens, but a razor-thin margin of victory limited his mandate. Even though the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress, conservative Southerners resisted plans to increase federal aid to education, provide health insurance for the elderly and create a new Department of Urban Affairs. And so, despite his rhetoric, Kennedy's policies were often limited and restrained.

One priority was to end a recession and restore growth. But Kennedy lost the confidence of business leaders in 1962, when he sought to roll back what the administration regarded as an excessive price increase in the steel industry. Though he succeeded in his immediate goal, he alienated an important source of support. When he later called for a large tax cut to provide capital and stimulate the economy, conservative opposition in Congress destroyed any hopes of passing the deficit measure.

The overall legislative record of the Kennedy administration was meager. The president made some gestures toward civil rights leaders but did not embrace the goals of the civil rights movement until nearly the end of his presidency. He failed in his effort to aid public education and to provide medical care for the elderly. He gained only a modest increase in the minimum wage. Still, he did secure funding for a space program, and established the Peace Corps to send men and women overseas to assist developing countries in meeting their own needs. Kennedy had planned an ambitious legislative program for the last year of his term. But then on November 22, 1963, he was assassinated while riding in an open car during a visit to Dallas, Texas. It was a traumatic and defining moment for a generation, just as the death of Franklin Roosevelt had been for an earlier one.

In retrospect, Kennedy's liberal reputation stems more from his style and ideals than from the implementation of his policies; but because the agenda set out in the last year of his presidency was enacted in 1964-1966, he was seen as a liberal force for change after his death.