Taking Power

With President Truman

President Kennedy knew he had to prioritize the goals he wanted to achieve as President. He choose to concentrate his initial actions on pushing to get the economy moving. He decided to put off other matters until later in his Presidency. Kennedy knew he had to harness the enthusiasm his elections had brought to give the American people a sense that America was moving again. JFK successfully did that. He made sure that America, and the world saw the image of a young and vigorous President ready to lead America forward.


John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency well-aware of the limitations of the office. He knew that a President was often the hostage of events that were beyond his control. He was determined, however, to seize the initiative.

Kennedy was keenly aware that one of the major challenges the US faced was economic. On January 30, 1961 he spoke to Congress about the state of the economy and pledged to make the economy his major concern. He stated, " We take office in the wake of seven months of recession, three and one-half years of slack, seven years of diminished economic growth, and nine years of falling farm income. " While his speech was well received he knew that he would have a difficult time getting the conservative Congress (with a democratic majority) to pass any sweeping legislation. Thus, he relied on issuing executive orders whenever he could. One of his first executive orders, for example, was issued to improve food distribution to the unemployed.

Kennedy also believed he would have a hard time getting approval for any civil rights legislation, so his initial actions in that area were taken as executive orders, as well. He established the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. The overarching goal was to eliminate discrimination against African American in the hiring practice of the Federal government and its contractors. It was in the area of foreign affairs, however, that the fate of a Presidency could be determined. While Kennedy did not obsess about the possibility of nuclear war, the concern about such a prospect was never far from his mind. As events of his Presidency were to prove, the country and the world would face the possibility of just such a disaster during this President's term as would never be seen again. Kennedy was determined to do all he could to avoid such an eventuality, without giving in to Soviet intimidation. His inauguration was marked by a small Soviet gesture the release of two American airmen held by the USSR. A conciliatory letter from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accompanied the release. Kennedy hoped to capitalize on the two events to try to lower tensions with the Soviets. He was under no illusion that the US no longer faced a grave and continued threat from the Soviets. One area of major concern in the early days of the Administration was the situation in South East Asia €“ Vietnam and Laos. Soon after assuming office, Kennedy signed off on an additional commitment of US forces to train the South Vietnamese military.

Among Kennedy's first major initiatives -- and one that proved to be his most popular and enduring -- was the Peace Corps. He issued an executive order on March 1, 1961 establishing the organization, and appointed his brother-in law Sargent Shriver to head it. The goal of the Peace Corps was to send American volunteers to underdeveloped countries to help fight poverty and educate the people. The President's hope was that these young Americans would be America's best ambassadors, and would help counteract communist agitations in many underdeveloped countries. The program was extremely popular with more than three-quarters of Americans expressing support for it.

Kennedy was also determined to reach out and strengthen US ties to South America. In a March 13, 1961 speech to Congressional leaders and South American ambassadors, Kennedy said, referring to freedom in the Western Hemisphere " Never in the long history of our hemisphere has this been nearer to fulfillment, and never has it been in greater danger. " The President established the Alliance for Progress to benefit the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

President Kennedy knew that in order to maintain his momentum, he needed to develop a direct connection to the American public. From the beginning of his administration, he held weekly live press conferences, giving the members of the press unprecedented access to a President. He quickly became a favorite of the press, thanks to his witty repartee and relaxed charm.

All of his initial steps resonated well with the public. By the middle of March, his approval rating ranged from 75% to an astonishing 90% depending on the poll.