No simple answers: Kennedy's inaugural speech today

No simple answers: Kennedy's inaugural speech today
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Nearly 60 years ago, John F. Kennedy delivered an inaugural speech that inspired the world. “Camelot” ascended amid the Cold War, the end of colonial rule in Africa and Asia, and the early stirrings of desegregation. Kennedy offered a unifying message, a call to service, and a vision for peace and prosperity. In 14 minutes, Kennedy delivered a vision that in tone and substance is still instructive for an America mired in crisis today.

2020 has been a tough year for the American experiment. COVID-19 has killed over 140,000 people, unemployment levels are at Depression era levels, protests continue across the nation and government deficits are skyrocketing.

And the worst is yet to come.


The Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the fall may be one of the most difficult times in public health. Some public health experts forecast that up to 250,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 by year’s end. The pandemic will have continuing social and economic costs as schools struggle to open and more businesses fail in the weeks and months ahead. Compounding the situation, the National Weather Service predicts a busy hurricane season which will likely wreak disaster and displacement along the southern coasts. And of course, the nation faces extreme polarization in the run up to the November election.

2020 has not been kind to America abroad either.

The world is on the cusp of a new geo-political era. President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE has accelerated the end of the post-World War II era, abdicated traditional American leadership roles in multilateral institutions, and ceded power and influence to Russia and China.

Four years ago, at the 2016 GOP convention, then Republican nominee Donald Trump offered a bold solution to America’s challenges at home and abroad. He promised to make America great again; he alone would fix it. Donald Trump’s simple message propelled him to the White House.

2020 has taught America that, in fact, there are no simple answers.


President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address offered a values approach to governance grounded in the pursuit of liberty. Kennedy saw the complexity of the human condition and promised to break the chains of tyranny, poverty, disease and war. In making this pledge, Kennedy affirmed faithful alliances, demonstrated strength and displayed the confidence to negotiate with adversaries on the most contentious issues. Finally, Kennedy acknowledged that solutions to core challenges could take a generation of sacrifice or longer.

Donald Trump is no John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE.

The sitting president has weakened America. The nation is sicker, poorer, more divided, and less respected today than it was four years ago.

Given Trump’s failures, the solutions to the great challenges of these times are also far more complex. A Biden administration, if he wins in November, would do well to set forth a compelling national vision, while counseling values and patience as Kennedy did in January 1961. There are simply no easy answers.

Domestically, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE will have to unify America after its purposeful fracturing during these past four years. Black Lives Matters protesters need to know that America is on a path to becoming more inclusive and just. At the same time, the police must be respected and valued so they can provide the security and safety for life’s daily discourse. A Biden administration will also have to mitigate the worst ravages of poverty, disease, and a lack of opportunity from Appalachia to Chicago and from coronavirus to cancer. A values-based approach, coupled with measurable progress toward national metrics, will leverage the time necessary to strengthen American economic and social institutions.

Internationally, wars, pandemics and climate change will continue to stress fragile states and foster zero-sum state competition over resources. China will almost certainly seek to change the status quo in Taiwan or the South China Sea in an absolute test of American leadership. Russia is likely to push confrontation by making another land grab in Eastern Europe or by doubling down on its social media warfare against the United States.

Kennedy enlisted the support of everyday citizens when he concluded his inauguration with “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The challenges of Kennedy’s times were not finished in one hundred days — nor in his lifetime. But — by beginning the quest to realize a more perfect union — Kennedy unleashed the faith that America would remain a beacon to the world.

Joe Biden was a teenager when Kennedy was sworn in as President. If Joe Biden wins in November, he will have the opportunity to realize Kennedy’s vision nearly 60 years later.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.