The President’s Kennedy Problem

America today bears a resemblance to the 1960’s. A recent poll portends political surprises to come.

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The 1960s: An Angry Nation—Hippies, War, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll and Political Unrest

With that in mind, this is a column that discusses politics in a broad way. The purpose is not to persuade readers to think about liberal or conservative issues. Instead, the goal is to describe what is happening in our country today, why it is reminiscent of an earlier era, and prognostication on how this will impact the political landscape and the next national election.

I am of a generation where everyone remembers where they were when they heard and how they felt when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. While this event happened almost 60 years ago, on November 22, 1963, the event will be remembered for an entire lifetime by everyone old enough to be aware of his assassination when it occurred.

I was leaving an English class in high school. When leaving the classroom, someone yelled, “Kennedy has been shot” in the hallway. I thought a classmate who was a friend (named Kennedy) had been shot at the school. That was more believable than thinking an American president could have been shot in public in the United States of America.

Another national shock occurred five years later when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Only two months later, in June 1968, a third unthinkable national tragedy happened when Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was running for president to try and unseat President Lyndon Johnson, was also assassinated in public.

The 1960s are often portrayed as an era of optimism, idealism, and a whirlwind of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, highlighted by a long-remembered concert in 1969 in Woodstock, New York, and the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Haight-Ashbury became a center of the counterculture movement famous for its hippie culture and a hub for psychedelic music and drugs.

58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War, which was at its height in 1968.

With this background, many Americans felt like the country was having a nervous breakdown. Assassinations, cultural unrest, and intense divisions over the war in Vietnam heavily influenced the American political landscape. Political surprises could have been expected in the unsettling environment, and the results met this expectation.

On March 12, 1968, Eugene McCarthy surprised the political establishment by winning 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. The “unbeatable” Lyndon Johnson was suddenly revealed as a politically weakened and vulnerable president.

A few days later, on March 16, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. An astute politician, President Lyndon Johnson, who became president when John Kennedy was assassinated, announced on March 31, 1968, he was not running for reelection.

The second Kennedy brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was shot less than three months later.

Ultimately, Richard Nixon became president after running on a campaign for “law and order.” His strategy appealed to a broad electorate yearning for again having peace and stability.

America Now Resembles the 1960s

America today bears a resemblance to America in the 1960s. The electorate is unsettled, often angry, and this is likely to be reflected in upcoming elections. Numerous people were killed in mass shootings in shopping malls and parties and 500 shootings at large supermarket chains since 2020.

In addition, inflation has been raging for the past two years. The Social Security COLA in 2023 was the highest in 41 years at 8.7%.

While we are not in a war with American troops on the front line, we are involved to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars in providing weapons and assistance to Ukraine in a war with Russia. Anyone who is not concerned about the use of nuclear weapons before this war comes to an end has not been paying much attention.

What political surprises are going to occur with this background?

No one knows, but surprises similar to what happened in the 1960s are likely. Hopefully, no assassinations will occur, and surprises will only be political decisions by candidates and tabulated election results.

Federal employee unions love having Joe Biden in office. It is the equivalent of having a union organizer in the White House, and he is proud of it.

Many federal employees are concerned about a second presidential term for Donald Trump. He was elected president with a promise to “drain the swamp”—referring to the Washington political establishment and federal employees considered the equivalent of a “deep state” with few restraints imposed by voters or politicians.

Will there be a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024? While this is a common belief, underlying events make this less likely. Neither candidate is popular. Both candidates have significant weaknesses that may tire or scare voters.

Next year’s primary results will lead to surprising results. Ultimately, both parties want a candidate who can win. Voters are not happy with the direction of the country. Voting another senior citizen into the White House seems unlikely.

President Biden’s Kennedy Problem

Senator Robert F. Kennedy was a Democrat. President John Kennedy was a Democrat. Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is also a Democrat.

There is irony in RFK, Jr. running for president in 2024. His father may have become president and overturned a sitting president had he not been assassinated. RFK, Jr. is relatively unknown and is not a professional politician in the Democratic primary. He is challenging an unpopular sitting president.

A recent poll displays the favorability ratings of national politicians. The two with the highest unfavorable ratings are Joe Biden (58%) and Donald Trump (58%). Most Americans do not like either candidate.

The candidate with the highest favorable rating (44%) and the lowest unfavorable rating (22%) is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Perhaps it is because he is not a professional politician. Perhaps it is because of his last name. Maybe it is because he is not as well-known. It may also be because he is running a campaign highlighting his support for civil liberties, opposition to the war in Ukraine, disagreement with government action on Covid and mandating vaccinations, and his fear of the role in our society played by various national security agencies.

Many of his positions may appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate. These issues and his positions are hard to classify. They are libertarian in tone and issues that used to resonate among Democrats. Perhaps his goal is to stress the common ground among Americans rather than emphasizing more divisive issues.

Final Analysis

Political results are influenced and made more predictable by historical experience. At various times the federal workforce has been lauded and appreciated, at other times it has been castigated and criticized. The reasons vary but often are influenced by the person sitting in the White House.

Electoral winners in next year’s national elections will influence the federal workforce in many ways—from determining salaries and benefits to receiving credit or blame for national events or even being the subject of a mandatory vaccination requirement to hold a federal job.

This political season is already demonstrating the ability to yield surprising results. Robert F. Kennedy was not often predicted to be a candidate. He was not predicted to climb quickly in the polls. No one knows if he has staying power for this election or will eventually become a leading candidate or, perhaps, even be the next occupant of the Oval Office.

In my experience, the federal workforce is politically astute and well aware of the implications of a national election. Most readers will pay attention to events in the political arena and policy implications as a candidate goes up or down in the eyes of American voters.

This article reflects the opinion and experience of one person. The goal of the article is to raise awareness of potential political surprises and how readers may be impacted. Readers are invited to offer their own views and the rationale for their own conclusions. Please observe the comment policy when submitting comments.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47