JFK's Re-Election Advice for Obama From Beyond the Grave

To: David Plouffe and David Axelrod
From: Jim Warren
Subject: A voice from the grave

When the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Tuesday released the last 45 hours of White House recordings secretly taped by JFK, it offered a startling reminder that not much has changed for the Democrats, no matter our assumptions about living in special and even historic times.

The same sort of internal debate over re-election strategy as is going on in the White House now seemed to be going on when President Kennedy convened his top political advisers on Nov. 12, 1963, to discuss the 1964 Democratic Convention and likely defining issues in the upcoming campaign. It was ten days before he was assassinated in Dallas.

He asked:

But what is it that we can [do to] make them decide that they want to vote for us, Democrats and Kennedy -- the Democrats not strong in appeal obviously as it was twenty years ago. The younger people, party label -- what is it that's going to make them go for us. What is it we have to sell them?

We hope we have to sell them prosperity but for the average guy, the prosperity is nil. He's not unprosperous but he's not very prosperous; he's not going make out well off. And the people who really are well off hate our guts. ... We've got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn't have much identity where these people are concerned.... Franklin Roosevelt had it, even Wilson had it but I think it's tough for a Democratic with that press apparatus working. So I'm just trying to think what is it... (tape concludes).

The participants in the meeting, thought to have been held in the Cabinet Room, were President Kennedy; Attorney General Robert Kennedy; Special Assistant to the President Lawrence O'Brien; Chairman of the Democratic National Committee John Bailey; Special Assistant to the President Kenneth O'Donnell; Special Counsel to the President Theodore Sorensen; and Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee Dick Maguire.

In that room, the president clearly discerned long-term problems that haven't really been solved for the Democrats, and he challenged those around him to address them. For sure, the president was an appealing figure to many youth. That was true, too, with Robert Kennedy in his later successful run for the Senate and his campaign for the White House, cut short by his own assassination.

But when it came to the blue-collar unease that would prompt later presidential victories by Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Kennedy seems to have been on the mark in dissecting the potential peril for Democrats. And one might stipulate that many wealthy Americans hate Obama's guts, too, buying into a caricature of him as a fire-breathing "socialist" propagated in the ongoing Republican primary campaign.

And inevitably, then as now, there were the omnipresent electoral realities:

"Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. Well, there's a chance we'll carry one of those states," said President Kennedy. "Let's not quit in Indiana and Iowa. Let's quit on Kansas and Nebraska. North Dakota? That's possible."