From Kennedy to Obama

The U.S., weakened by its economic and fiscal crisis, is no longer the undisputed superpower.

We are only two weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, at midday on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 in the city of Dallas, Texas. No one who was finishing high school then, now retired, will ever forget where they were and what they were doing early that evening when the news reached Spain. I remember how I heard about it: big white chalk letters on a blackboard in the doorway of the Pensamiento Navarro newspaper office in Pamplona. During the next 48 hours, the fledgling television, in grainy black and white, was a refuge for families all over the world. Those were different times, in a different world.

Huge changes have taken place in the half-century between JFK’s dramatically curtailed presidency and the uncertain course now being steered by Barack Obama, as his second term progresses and the U.S. drifts into decline. But there are also some lines of continuity, both in the power structure of Washington and between the two presidents. Both emerged as iconic leaders and bearers of hope for profound change in the U.S. Kennedy’s assassination cut short his presidency; we can only wonder what he would have done with a second term. In Obama’s case, his promises remain unfulfilled for different reasons. Historians have yet to give a definitive verdict on the brief JFK presidency. Not even the editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, dares to do so in a long article in which she calls Kennedy “elusive” and asks whether he was, after all, a great president or just “a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief.”

Surprisingly for a military officer, Eisenhower, the president who preceded Kennedy, gave a cryptic warning in his 1961 farewell address about the danger posed to democracy by the increasing power and influence of the military-industrial complex and its encroachment into politics. Fifty years later, the world has been an astonished witness to the hemorrhage of a state within a state and the leviathan of mass espionage made possible by the U.S. monopoly over cutting-edge technology, which gives it worldwide control of the Internet and the ability to invade privacy at will with the spurious excuse of an unending war against terrorism, as well as the undeclared motive of maintaining its economic, commercial and political supremacy.

It is true that the seeds of this Big Brother were sown during the Cold War with the creation of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). In fact, it is as old as the world. “The king hath note of all that they intend, by interception which they dream not of” (William Shakespeare, Henry V). Another unelected power, the economic-financial complex of Wall Street, was present during Kennedy’s time and was already gaining momentum as a political force. Now, during the Obama administration, there is still a revolving door between Wall Street and the White House.

Fifty years on, the question remains: How much power does a president really have, even with a clear electoral majority? The president makes proposals, but Congress makes decrees; we have seen how a White House bill can be destroyed on principle by a filibuster. In 1960 it was possible for a Catholic president to be elected, the first, and a very young one; Kennedy died at 47 without solving the problem of racial discrimination, which was not legally resolved until his successor, Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act.

Half a century later, the U.S. population elected an African-American president to the White House — a house that had been built by black slaves. However, even if Martin Luther King’s dream has almost come true, color is still an issue in the U.S. Only residual racism can explain the profound hatred and fear stirred up by Obama and his policies among a not insignificant section of what is still only a white Anglo-Saxon majority, watching as its control of the nation progressively slips away.

Where the world was once bipolar and black and white, with communism as the common enemy, it is now multipolar and diverse. The U.S., weakened by its economic and fiscal crisis, is no longer the undisputed superpower or a moral example to be followed. It is losing its old friends and finding it difficult to make new ones. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has admitted that the U.S. cannot take the support of the rest of the world for granted. Transatlantic relations, so important in the 1960s — when Kennedy dared to say in Berlin, “Ich bin ein Berliner” — are disintegrating. Obama, the first president of the Pacific, has not yet been to Brussels. It is no surprise to hear the official Chinese Xinhua agency suggest that now is perhaps the right moment for a bewildered planet to start thinking about how to build a de-Americanized world.

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