Obamas, Clintons to visit JFK grave. Is Kennedy legacy still potent politics?

Fifty years after his death voters still often rank John F. Kennedy as the best of modern presidents. He's an icon every subsequent American chief executive has had to deal with.

Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/REUTERS
Former President John F. Kennedy sits on a yacht with his daughter Caroline off Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1963. November 22, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

President Obama will visit John F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, two days before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination in Dallas, according to the White House.

The President will be accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, ex-President Bill Clinton, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The group will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Kennedy’s resting place on the long hill sloping down from Arlington’s Custis-Lee Mansion.

Later in the day Obama will further honor Kennedy’s legacy by holding the annual presentation ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Kennedy established the modern version of this award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the US government, in the months prior to his death.

This year’s recipients will include former President Clinton, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and baseball star Ernie Banks, among others.

Then on Wednesday evening Obama will give a speech honoring JFK and his lasting influence at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Kennedy family members are expected to attend.

The presence of the Clintons at Obama’s Kennedy events is sure to raise the question of whether Hillary may get his tacit endorsement in 2016. But beyond that is the larger, looming presence of JFK himself – an icon every subsequent American chief executive has had to deal with.

After all, associating oneself with the Kennedy aura remains potent politics. Fifty years after his death voters still often rank JFK as the best of modern presidents. A new Gallup poll finds that 74 percent of respondents believe Kennedy will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president.

“This is the highest retrospective rating given to any of the 11 presidents who have held office since Dwight Eisenhower,” write Gallup’s Andrew Dugan and Frank Newport.

Some of that may be due to the Kennedy story – his glamour and life cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. But less-remembered today is that JFK was enormously popular throughout his 1,000 days in office. His job approval average was 70 percent.

That’s the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval. By contrast, Obama’s average approval rating now stands at 49 percent.

“Elected by the closest of margins, Kennedy soon established a wide reservoir of support with the American public,” write Dugan and Newport.

Since the tragic day of November 22, 1963, two US presidents have been highly effective in using the memory of JFK to their own ends, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting  Legacy of John F. Kennedy”.

Lyndon Johnson is the first and most obvious of these. Kennedy’s big tax cut and civil rights bills were stuck in Congress at the time of his death. Master legislative technician LBJ used the Dallas tragedy to help get them passed.

“All Johnson had to do at first was to designate a bill or directive as necessary to fulfill President Kennedy’s agenda, and legislators and the public rushed to support it,” said Sabato in a recent interview with “The Week”.

Republican Ronald Reagan rates as the second president able to harness JFK’s memory, according to Sabato. With is hair and actor’s skill he had something of Kennedy’s comfort in front of the camera. He and his advisors also presented their program as a logical outgrowth of JFK’s more conservative impulses.

“Reagan’s use of JFK to achieve his across-the-board tax cut and to reinforce his tough anti-communist stance was masterful,” according to Sabato.

Among other presidents, Clinton talked about JFK the most but was interested in his own approach to presidential policies. Jimmy Carter wrestled with the Kennedy legacy, facing a direct challenge from little brother Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980. Carter beat Kennedy for the Democratic nomination but then lost to Reagan in the general election.

Obama courted the Kennedy family and won Sen. Kennedy’s endorsement at a crucial moment in the 2008 campaign. Hillary Clinton had hoped for the nod as well but was rebuffed.

In that sense, her appearance at the JFK gravesite on Wednesday with the man who beat her in 2008 may close a circle. Obama might be helping her to associate in the public mind with the youthful, dynamic JFK, at long last.

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