“We do this in a peaceful and orderly way,” said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee at President Obama’s inauguration. “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch.”
In a speech that was picked up by Tennessee television and media outlets, as well as nationally, Alexander lauded the peaceful transfer of power as “the most conspicuous and enduring symbol of our democracy.”
The party poopers at Breitbart complained about Alexander’s celebration of the inauguration ritual, but Americans who favor democratic government had to welcome Alexander’s sentiments (even if they might not vote for him).
When we see a true peaceful and legitimate transfer of power like we did yesterday, we can all see and sense the cause behind it. Republicans like Alexander who can count, now realize that Obama won the votes of a solid majority of the citizenry in November. For better or worse, he represents “us,” the American people, better than any other recent applicant for job. (Republicans who can’t count dispute this.) For most, our common faith in majority rule empowers him to speak for us anew. A new season of power is inaugurated. Now let the partisan bickering resume!
But Alexander’s words also had a solemn shadow, as Bill Kelly noted. The pagaentry of Obama’s second term was a reminder that President John F. Kennedy, another young, eloquent, sometimes vacillating, liberal Democratic president, was denied the same.
The transfer of power on November 22, 1963 was not peaceful and it has never been explained to the satisfaction of most Americans. We still don’t see the why. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the event later this year, Americans still struggle to understand that violent transfer of power (which is why the recent remarks of Bobby Kennedy Jr. got such widespread attention.)
But if the causes of November 22, 1963 are unclear, its consequences are not, especially for President Obama’s second term.
JFK’s death altered the course of his dovish (conservatives would say “weak”) foreign policy and solidified the influence of more hawkish (liberals might say “lawless”) power centers of the U.S. nationality security state. A half century later, Obama is the president of that democratic state, and commander in chief of the national security state that often operates beyond the control of its democratic counterpart.
So while Obama’s inaugural speech focused on a domestic agenda of equality as the fulfillment of democracy, his national security agenda will also be consequential for the future of self-government.
What will Barack Obama do in national security policy his second term? Probably something similar to what John Kennedy would have done. Although the two men came to office with very different formative experiences, Obama’s policies have resembled JFK’s in striking ways,
Kennedy was a privileged scion who served in World War II, and barely escaped death several times. He loathed the ideas of war that others advocated so easily. Obama, on the other hand, was a self-made American who came of age everywhere from Indonesia to Hawaii to New York; he had no experience of combat violence, only a habit of seeing political conflict analytically and through the eyes of others, even his enemies.
All the same Obama has followed JFK’s path of Ivy League realism. Both JFK and Obama showed much more continuity with their militaristic predecessors than liberals liked. (Some on the left judged their policies as being close to criminal.) From the right, conservatives accused JFK of appeasement, of squandering power, of failing to lead, especially in Cuba. Obama has absorbed the same indictment, especially in Iran.
In Vietnam, JFK inherited a war intended to demonstrate the American empire of influence would prevail over international communism in the decolonized world. Obama escalated the U.S. war in Afghanistan to demonstrate American sway over international terrorism in the lands from which we were attacked on 9/11. Yet in both wars JFK and Obama resisted the Pentagon’s recommendations for escalation.
Castro’s Cuba was to JFK’s first term what the ayatollahs’ Iran was to Obama’s: the anti-American state whose allegedly unpredictable leadership might harbor a nuclear threat. Like JFK in Cuba, Obama has sanctioned covert war and assassination against Iran. Yet, like JFK in Cuba, he has resisted an overt policy of “regime change” and consistently rejected the logic of pre-emptive war against an obnoxious adversary.
Kennedy pondered de-escalation in Vietnam and rapprochement with Cuba. Obama ponders withdrawal from Afghanistan and diplomacy with Iran. It is reasonable to think that Obama’s second term will look like JFK’s would have. Perhaps the peaceful transition of power can accomplish what the violent denied.