Kennedy, Obama, and the 2012 Election

11/16/2010 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

November 22 is the 47th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. The young president has now been dead for a longer span of time than he lived. A month before the assassination, Kennedy had achieved arguably the greatest accomplishment of his administration, when he signed the instruments of ratification of the test ban treaty. It was the first major postwar agreement with the Soviets, the critical first agreement that the aged Churchill had desperately hoped to secure as an initial step toward opening up the closed Communist society, the agreement that Kennedy had been aiming at since inauguration day. I think that that achievement has a very important lesson for Democrats today at a time when, much as Kennedy did, they anxiously look ahead to the next presidential election.

Kennedy's achievement was not merely in overcoming the huge differences between Washington and Moscow; it was also in overcoming the obstacles that existed within himself. Since 1938, when Kennedy first read Churchill's Arms and the Covenant, he had been preoccupied with the competing demands of principle and politics. He had endlessly contemplated the great conundrum which faces a leader in a democracy: How does one win votes if the people do not support the course you believe to be right for the country? Should one risk principle for political advantage? And if one stands on principle and is voted out, what does that do to the things in which you believe? Though he would make the case, both in Profiles in Courage and during the 1960 presidential campaign, that it is a leader's duty to put principle first, he often took a different view in private. Many times in the course of the presidency, he worried intensely about damaging his reelection prospects by going counter to the mood of the electorate, and he allowed those concerns to dictate his course of action.

After the Cuban missile crisis, Americans widely believed that toughness rather than talk was the best way of dealing with the Soviets. Though Kennedy persisted in his wish to secure a test ban, political considerations daunted him. Democrats did well in the midterm elections, and afterward he was reluctant to risk his standing with unpopular negotiations. He worried that a failure to win Senate ratification could be political poison, and he was concerned that should Nelson Rockefeller, his likely Republican opponent, win in 1964, nuclear testing would continue indefinitely. At a moment when Republicans were promising to make the test ban a central issue in 1964, Kennedy was severely tempted to back off.

In the end, however, he did press forward. He did exactly what he had promised in the campaign: He risked his popularity for his responsibility. In 1960, Kennedy had argued that a president must strive to educate public opinion rather than simply cave to it. Accordingly, when he had made up his mind to push aggressively for a test ban, he explained his goals to the American people in one of his finest addresses, the American University speech on June 10, 1963.

The situation for Democrats is very different today, of course. The midterm election debacle has left President Obama with a rather different hand to play than Kennedy had. But the fundamental questions facing Obama are much the same. Should he succumb to public opinion? Must he abandon the bolder aspects of his agenda in the interest of reelection?

Or, as Kennedy did at the time of the test ban negotiations, should he strive to educate the people, to be their guide and lead the way?

Wasn't that what we elected him for?