The Limits of Power

In an issue that went to press just before President Kennedy's death, The Atlantic described how JFK's difficulties in influencing events had brought gloom to the White House.
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The administration has come almost full cycle from the cry of what can be done to the cry of what cannot be done. In 1960, Kennedy campaigned on the theme that all things were possible in an administration led by a vigorous and resourceful president. Now he more often talks about the limitations on his power and on the nation’s power. It will be interesting to see what tone he adopts in his reelection campaign to reignite the enthusiasm for the New Frontier and to persuade the country that the dynamism of his administration has not been lost.

The inability of the United States to influence events abroad has been a theme of a number of Kennedy’s recent comments in news conferences and speeches. In December 1962, when he was interviewed by three television reporters, the president said that the problems of the presidency had proved to be “more difficult than I had imagined they were,” and that “there is a limitation upon the ability of the United States to solve these problems.” He has also said, “The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be.”

These remarks are frank and revealing. Now, with the succession of military coups in Latin America and with the inability of the United States to influence decisively the government in South Vietnam, the stalemate over Kashmir, or the determination of [French] President [Charles] de Gaulle to oppose the Western alliance, there is an unpleasant air of defeatism in Washington.

Add to these overseas problems the president’s difficulties with Congress, and the gloom that characterizes some of the president’s recent utterances is understandable.

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