As the second year of his presidency drew to a close, John F. Kennedy conceded that the problems a president faced were more difficult than he had imagined. Hours before Kennedy stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to commit to the oath of office, Dwight Eisenhower had warned him that no easy problems found their way to the President’s desk. If they were easy, Eisenhower pointed out, they could be solved at a lower level. Kennedy had found that to be all too true. The worst of the Cuba crisis was behind them, and an election that had been anticipated to be difficult for the Democrats had gone remarkably smoothly, but thorny issues remained.1
Through most of 1962, Kennedy’s poll numbers had been on a steady decline. The Cuban crisis brought them back to life. His approval ratings did not quite reach the heady heights to which they had climbed in the wake of his biggest blunder—the Bay of Pigs—but at 76 percent they were high. However, after peaking in early-December, Kennedy’s poll numbers resumed their trajectory of decline, a trend that persisted through the remainder of his presidency.2
Cuba still figured prominently in public debate and on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. On October 28, Kennedy and Khrushchev had reached a deal that ended the intense 13-day crisis. On November 20, they reached an agreement in which the Soviets would remove their IL-28 bombers in exchange for the United States lifting the naval quarantine of Cuba.
By the beginning of December, the negotiations in New York were still dragging on. They were now heading toward a new potential quid pro quo: Soviet and Cuban agreement not to hinder ongoing U.S. surveillance flights of Cuba in exchange for the Kennedy administration formalizing its promise not to invade Cuba. If they two sides could agree to that, they envisaged lodging a joint declaration with the United Nations’ Secretary-General to that effect. If they could not agree, they would each submit their own statement.
Domestically, the reaction to the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuba crisis was split, albeit not evenly. Public opinion polls showed that an overwhelming number of Americans approved of President Kennedy’s performance during the crisis. But a small group of vocal critics on the Hill, mostly Republicans with a few Democrats, were less impressed. They boosted persistent rumors that the Soviets were hiding missiles and troops in Cuba and that the Kennedy administration was being less than candid in what it knew. Other critics blasted the administration for its policies restricting press access to information, a controversy sparked by some careless comments in late October by Defense Department spokesman Arthur Sylvester. And as Republicans conducted their postmortems of the party’s unexpectedly poor showing in the early November midterm elections, they settled on the Cuba crisis as the primary culprit.
As Kennedy looked forward into December and early January, there was important work to be done. The new Congress was due back in session in early January. Its makeup had not been fundamentally altered by the midterm elections, so the prospects of pushing through New Frontier legislation were not much improved. But a budget for fiscal year 1964 was due, along with the President’s State of the Union address on January 14. The budget had to be finalized by then.
The process of preparing the budget had been put on hold during the Cuba crisis, but in a process led by Bureau of the Budget Director David Bell, the administration was scrambling to make up for lost time. Throughout the process it was clear that despite efforts to restrain the budget, it would be large and would include another sizeable deficit. For political reasons, with another large deficit forecast and looking to get a tax cut passed to stimulate a lagging economy, Kennedy wanted to keep the total budget request under a symbolic threshold of $100 billion.
The two largest increases were for defense and the space program; defense alone consumed over half of the total budget request. The recent crisis in Cuba seemed to reaffirm for many that a strong national defense was necessary. And defense was relatively invulnerable to political attack. Moreover, Kennedy had promised that the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. Making that happen was not only inordinately complicated; it was also exceedingly expensive. Defense and space spending therefore were largely responsible for pushing the budget request to new record-setting heights. The request ultimately squeaked in below the $100 billion mark, but only just. It made for the largest U.S. budget request ever and involved a sizable deficit. In that context, Kennedy’s tax cut proposal was going to be a hard sell.
Through it all, Kennedy kept his tapes rolling. The frequency of his taping slowed—reflecting in large part a less feverish daily work schedule as Washington headed into the holiday season—but he continued to secretly capture on tape discussions of some of the most important topics his administration faced at home and abroad.
|||“Television and Radio Interview: ‘After Two Years—a Conversation with the President,’” 17 December 1962, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1963), doc. 551.|
|||Presidential Performance Public Opinion Polls, Gallup Organization.|