NEW FRONTIER. The term "New Frontier" refers to the economic and social programs of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The concept of a "New Frontier" epitomized Kennedy's commitment to renewal and change. He pitched his 1960 presidential campaign as a crusade to bring in a "new generation of leadership—new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities." Standing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before 80,000 people, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy used "the New Frontier" to root himself in the past and evoke a new and rosy future. In a characteristic intellectual and political pastiche, Kennedy and his speechwriters built on President Theodore Roosevelt's "Square Deal," President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal," President Harry S. Truman's "Fair Deal," and Professor Frederick Jackson Turner's lament about "the closing of the frontier." Nearly seven decades after Turner's famous 1893 essay, Kennedy noted that "today some would say" that the pioneering struggles Turner praised "are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But …the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won, and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats."
Kennedy claimed that his frontier was "a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them"—foreshadowing his more famous "ask not what your country can do for you" formulation in his inaugural address. And those challenges were essential in generating the great liberal excitement of Kennedy's magical "thousand days." But the New Frontier was also very much a "set of promises," and a legislative agenda "to get the country moving again." Detailed in the Democratic platform, the New Frontier called for advancing "the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men," raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing equal pay for women, rebuilding the inner cities, increasing federal aid for education, initiating a Peace Corps, and developing a Medicare program to assist the elderly.
Kennedy was more successful in setting a tone than in enacting his program. True, in Kennedy's first two years as president, Congress passed 304 bills that the White House proposed. But that represented less than half of the 653 bills actually championed and, many historians agree, "domestically, it was not the important half." Congress raised the minimum wage from $1.00 to $1.25 and broadened eligibility requirements. Congress did provide $4.9 billion in federal grants for urban development. But Congress defeated Kennedy's proposals for Medicare, for a Department of Urban Affairs, and for mass transit aid. The big, dramatic, Kennedyesque legislative program known as the Great Society was only enacted during President Lyndon B. Johnson's tenure—partially as a tribute to the martyred president after Kennedy's assassination, and partially as a result of Johnson's tenacity and talent. John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, thus, was more evocative than effective, more style than substance, more a mark of Kennedy's great potential and inspiring oratory than the high-point of liberal reform he hoped it would be.
Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.