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JFK’s political

Published: November 22, 2013

If you visit the Tampa Bay History Center’s excellent exhibit on President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Tampa four days before his assassination you’ll see Kennedy — on a vintage color TV — speaking to a crowd of business leaders at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

His remarks at that event and throughout his Nov. 18, 1963, visit to Tampa are worth attention on the 50th anniversary of his death, a time when Democrats and Republicans seem hopelessly divided over their vision of the country.

Say what you will about Kennedy and his accomplishments — and his legacy remains heavily debated as the columns on the opposing page underscore — he articulated a vision of a can-do country on the move, one where free enterprise and individual initiative powered the economy with government playing a supportive, but not dominant, role

When Kennedy told his Tampa audiences of the need for a “stimulus,” he meant a tax cut, which was passed after his death, and as he anticipated boosted the economy and government revenues.

We wish President Obama would be so appreciative of the free market’s power.

And we wish that he and Congress both were as concerned with creating jobs.

Kennedy sought the tax cut as a way to stimulate the economy so it could absorb the 10 million additional workers that he said were expected in the next 21⁄2 years. He worried about an unemployment rate that stood at 5.5 percent.

There seems no such sense of urgency today when an unemployment rate stands at an official 7.3 percent, but could be as much as twice that if everyone who has given up looking for a job were included.

Kennedy also pushed tariff reductions and supported free trade, which Obama, to his credit, has supported.

But President Kennedy was not nearly as sanguine about expanding government’s reach as our current president.

Speaking to the Chamber of Commerce at the Armory, Kennedy made a point of addressing concerns about the federal government’s growth.

Although acknowledging government would grow along with the population, he stressed that spending on federal civilian employees, as a percentage of national output, had not increased since the end of World War II, and the number of employees per capita had decreased.

He pointed out the major growth in government had come at the state level and spoke of the administration’s “unprecedented efforts to transfer to private ownership many of the financial assets owned by the federal government ... to remove obsolete transportation regulations ” and other steps to safeguard against a “government too big for the economy.”

That is a concern we have not heard President Obama express.

We don’t want to put too fine a point on this. Kennedy applauded, particularly in a speech to union workers at the International Inn, government actions that protected citizens’ savings, made home mortgages available and improved the safety of workers. He pushed for investment in education and health care for the elderly. He warned against sharp cutbacks in federal spending, which he blamed for a 1957 recession.

Today’s congressional Republicans, often unbending and reluctant to invest for the future, might learn something from Kennedy’s good-humor toward opponents and his willingness to engage Americans in ambitious challenges, such as the space race.

Kennedy, whose stunning death 50 years ago still scars the nation, preached a gospel of economic growth, private enterprise, government restraint and military strength.

He may have been considered “liberal” at the time, but he was far removed from the progressives who today would cast the government safety net over every aspect of American life.