Happy birthday, Mr. President. We wish you many more good years. You’ve come a long way in your first 50 years, but so has the country. Here’s a quick look at what Americans were thinking about the year you were born:
In the summer of 1961, John Kennedy had a 75 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll. Yours doesn’t look as good. Gallup reported last week that your approval rating had hit a new low of 40 percent.
Fifty years ago, as today, Americans wanted the president to follow a middle course. Nineteen percent said they would like President Kennedy to follow a policy that was more to the right “by following more of the views of business and conservative groups” while 15 percent wanted him to go more to the left “by following more of the views of labor and other liberal groups.”
But 50 percent wanted him to follow a policy halfway between the two. Gallup asked one of the first questions that year about the program that became Medicare. Sixty-seven percent in 1961 favored having the Social Security tax increased in order to pay for old-age medical insurance, while 26 percent were opposed.
The U.S. space shuttle program has just ended, but the year you were born, Mr. President, Americans were worried about the space race and there was an even division of opinion about whether the Russians or the Americans would be the first to send a man to the moon. Nine percent in another question asked by Gallup said it would never happen.
This year, the Postal Service is contemplating closing post offices around the country to make ends meet. In 1961, 46 percent favored increasing the rate of first class mail from 4 to 5 cents. Half were opposed.
Foreign policy was very much on the minds of Americans in 1961. Americans said the United States and its allies should fight their way to Berlin if Communist East Germany closed all roads and did not permit planes to land. In 1961 and today, Americans were wary about putting troops in harm’s way. They wanted the United Nations to try to settle the Berlin crisis first.
Fidel Castro is still with us even though he is no longer President of Cuba. In a 1961 question, 63 percent told Gallup that the United States should refuse to buy or sell products to Cuba so long as Castro is in power. Far fewer Americans have doubts about trade with Cuba today, though the country and Castro are not regarded favorably.
Fashions were changing in 1961, and Jackie Kennedy, like your wife today, was a fashion icon. Although a similar question wasn’t asked in 1961, we expect that most Americans would have admired the Kennedy family just as they admire yours. In Gallup’s polling two-thirds approved of women wearing slacks in public (a quarter were opposed), but their views on women wearing shorts in public were a mirror image. Two-thirds disapproved, while 27 percent approved.
A year after electing the first Catholic president, 82 percent told Gallup that they would vote for a generally well qualified Catholic for president. Half said they would vote for a generally well qualified Negro. In all the polls today, an overwhelming majority says it would vote for a black for president.
A lot changes in 50 years, and many of those changes have been for the better. But some things stay the same, like our gratitude for the occupants of the Oval Office. Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and Andrew Rugg a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.