06/07/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Obama and the Rhetorical Presidency: Lessons From June 1963

The presidency, Theodore Roosevelt famously declared, is a "bully pulpit." And especially when a president faces an intransigent Congress, as President Barack Obama does, the ability to use the White House to sound important themes may be one of the presidency's principal institutional advantages.

Should President Obama elect to use his presidential podium this way, he could find no better model than President John F. Kennedy who--fifty years ago this month--delivered historic presidential speeches on consecutive days on two pressing issues of his (and our) time, world peace and racial justice.

On June 10, 1963 Kennedy devoted his American University Commencement Address to "the most important topic on earth: world peace." Eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy expressed his aspiration for "genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children--not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women--not merely peace in our time but peace for all time." A nuclear age made peace "the necessary rational end of rational men." Peace could only occur through a process based "on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned."

Kennedy's words were meant for the Soviet Union but he also challenged Americans to reexamine their attitudes. For "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Kennedy backed his eloquent words with deeds--he announced a resumption of multilateral discussions towards a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and a moratorium on American atmospheric tests so long as no other nation performed any.

Nuclear destruction was not the only pressing issue preoccupying Kennedy. Spring 1963 had turned violent. In May, buses of black Freedom Riders were fire-bombed and then attacked by white mobs in Alabama. Birmingham police then used clubs, dogs, and powerful hoses to attack peaceful civil rights protesters. In June, Governor George Wallace had defied a court order that two black students be allowed to enroll in the University of Alabama, a crisis finally resolved on June 11.

That evening, Kennedy delivered a quickly arranged national television-radio address on race. He called upon each American to "stop and examine his conscience" regarding these events. America was based on the ideal of fair treatment and blacks were asked to bear costs of citizenship, including military service, but denied equal opportunity. "It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color." Yet on a variety of measures the life prospects of a black baby in 1963 were significantly worse simply because of its race.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." Kennedy called for legislative action but he also drew from the Golden Rule and American ideals to ask every citizen to become part of the solution.

President Obama faces more complicated issues in a more challenging political context than President Kennedy did one half century ago. International threats come from various state and non-state sources. Obama's party controls only one, not both, houses of Congress, and in the one with a Democratic majority Republicans filibuster many issues, not simply civil rights where southern Democrats complicated Kennedy's presidency. And in an information age, presidential speeches now compete with other voices, many of which belong to Obama's inevitable critics.

Not every eloquent presidential speech can have the impact of Kennedy's historic two from June 1963. The cerebral Kennedy's decision to frame the issues in moral terms contributed as did the poetry of his prose and the uncharacteristic passion he communicated in those two masterful speeches. But he also addressed subjects of pressing concern to many Americans. And he followed his words with deeds.

Even so, President Obama might look for more opportunities to use his oratorical gifts to shape public sentiment in accordance with the best American ideals. He did so recently when he suggested that the United States cannot, consistent with American values or interests, remain in a "perpetual wartime footing." High-profile presidential speeches might contribute on other contemporary problems, including immigration reform, gun control, and climate change, not to mention the two Kennedy chose--world peace and racial justice.

By so using his "bully pulpit," Obama at least would educate the public and perhaps produce legislative action. And if he mixes reason, morality and eloquence as he can do so well, fifty years from now a new generation may look back and recall Obama's words as we remember JFK's great speeches from those two consecutive days in June 1963.