When President Kennedy took office in January 1961 his rhetoric about the New Frontier aroused hopes of significant reform. Were those hopes fulfilled by President Kennedy by the time of his death? The course textbook is Grand Expectations.
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Since the question referenced James Patterson's Grand Expectations, it is perhaps best to answer it based on Patterson's argument. Patterson argues clearly that the answer is no, especially with respect to domestic policy. Kennedy, according to Patterson:
...aroused liberal expectations but had failed to overcome the long-entrenched power of the conservative coalition in Congress. New frontiers still stood in the distance.
According to Patterson, Kennedy's focus was decidedly on foreign policy, and he was actually quite reluctant to pursue anything more than modest government programs, preferring such measures as tax cuts, which were considerable under his administration. Patterson points to three reasons that Kennedy's domestic legislation record was "hardly stellar." The first was the president's "uninspiring leadership in this area," the second was that many legislators were unfriendly to "liberal initiatives," and finally, his programs were simply reflective of the "wider limitations of liberal Democratic politics." In other words, they reflected the will of interest groups rather than actual reform. On civil rights, the most important domestic issue confronting the administration, Patterson concedes that Kennedy did much to keep it moving forward peacefully, but in the end, failed to secure passage of a civil rights bill. Indeed, for Patterson, "the deadlock delaying the [civil rights] bill served as an apt symbol of Kennedy's record in the field of domestic policy..."
Even in terms of foreign policy, it is argued that Kennedy's rhetoric and policies helped to "escalate tensions with the Soviet Union," even though he was primarily interested in an ongoing policy of containment and essentially shoring up the global balance of power in a way favorable to the United States. Patterson argues that Kennedy's role as a cool hand in the Cuban Missile Crisis is generally overstated, and that when it came to Southeast Asia, he essentially blundered into a military buildup through his lack of savvy in "sorting out good information from bad and at developing long-range plans." On the other hand, despite several "troubling failures," he is credited with such gestures as the Peace Corps, and overall leaving the nation in a "promising" state of detente with the Soviet Union. Patterson's synthesis, however, does not credit Kennedy with major, enduring reforms, at home or abroad.
Source: James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)458-523.
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