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Obama's "security gap" phrase echoes a JFK line

March 20, 2008 |  9:19 am

In the ongoing flow of rhetoric on the campaign trail, Barack Obama has come up with a new phrase: He’s taken to talking about a “security gap” in America.

In Wednesday's speech on Iraq, Obama defined the security gap as the difference between the claims of hawkish officials and the actual insecurity caused by their actions. “There is a security gap in this country,” Obama said in North Carolina. “A gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.”

It’s the latest in a series of ways in which Obama and his campaign, intentionally or not (and it seems mostly to be intentional), have reached back to the legacy of John Kennedy. (One of the main keepers of the assassinated president's flame also has been eager to help.)

It was Kennedy who made a lot of headway in 1960 by campaigning across the country warning of a “missile gap” -- the difference between the missiles in the arsenal of the Soviet Union and those in the American arsenal. Kennedy promised to close that gap, which supposedly favored the Soviets, if he became president.

For Kennedy, warning of a missile gap served the political purpose of showing him to be a tough cold warrior despite his youth, inexperience and membership in the Democratic Party. Kennedy was only 42 when elected to the White House, and he was running against the super-experienced Richard Nixon, who’d served as a congressman, senator and vice president.

The only problem was, the missile gap was a fiction. It’s widely accepted that ...

when Kennedy did reach the White House, he was informed that the Soviet advantage with which he’d been lambasting the Republicans was non-existent.

By then, of course, it had served its political purpose.

That’s not to say that Obama’s claims of a security gap are false. And he’s really making a different point—about the allegedly inflated claims of hard-line Republicans and the reality that they have made the country less secure by, for example, focusing on Iraq instead of Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting historical echo for Obama to choose.

-- Naftali Bendavid

Bendavid writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.