WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Some 50 years after John F. Kennedy's sole presidential term was cut short by an assassin's bullets, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe Kennedy will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president. This is the highest retrospective rating given to any of the 11 presidents who have held office since Dwight Eisenhower. Another fifth of the public sees the slain president as average, while just 3% rank him as below average or poor.
Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and the 50-year anniversary of his assassination is being marked by a bevy of new books that re-examine this fateful event. The high esteem in which Americans hold Kennedy is not just a product of the current commemorative atmosphere, however. The results of this Nov. 7-10 Gallup poll are in line with previous findings; in 2004, 78% of adults said Kennedy would be seen as an outstanding or above-average president, also higher than any of his predecessors or successors whom Gallup measured.
Moreover, previous Gallup research demonstrates how remarkably well-regarded Kennedy has been over the past 50 years. As recently as 2010, 85% said they approved of the way Kennedy handled his job as president, the highest retrospective job approval rating of any president measured, and his posthumous approval rating fell no lower than 76% in Gallup polls from 1990 to 2010.
Kennedy has usually appeared in the top group of presidents when Americans are asked in an open-ended format to name the greatest U.S. president in American history. That includes a 2000 measure, in which Kennedy was at the top of the list, eclipsing Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. More recently, however, other presidents have been more frequently mentioned than Kennedy, including the most recent such survey in 2011, when the top presidents Americans named were Reagan, Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and Kennedy.
Youthful Kennedy Most Admired by Young
The image of the nation's youngest elected president is most popular with the youngest Americans -- those aged 18 to 29 -- although they were born decades after he served. Eighty-three percent of young adults say Kennedy was outstanding or above average in his presidency, compared with 71% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 77% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 67% of individuals aged 65 or older. Put another way, the age group that is least positive about Kennedy's presidency -- though still overwhelmingly positive -- includes those in the best position to remember his short time in office.
Kennedy Most Popular While in Office
Kennedy is not only popular retrospectively, but was also popular while he was president. Kennedy's 70% average job approval rating for his roughly 1,000 days in office is the highest of any president in Gallup's history of systematically measuring job approval. Kennedy's job approval rating while in office is five percentage points higher than that of Dwight Eisenhower, who is second on the list, and more than 20 points ahead of five other presidents.
Kennedy's overall average approval rating was not uniformly high during his tenure in the Oval Office. His ratings began to slide in 1962, only to jump again after the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, rising from 61% in mid-October of that year to 74% in mid-November. His ratings begin to drop thereafter, falling to below 60% in Gallup polls spanning September through November 1963, including his final approval rating of 58%. Whether this downward trajectory would have continued had he not been assassinated is a point of speculation, but the trends suggest this might have been the case.
Half a century since his assassination, Kennedy is retrospectively ranked highest among 11 presidents elected or ascending to office since Eisenhower. This may seem overly generous, though, because he does not appear on most historians' lists of the nation's greatest presidents. While Kennedy's term was eventful, with incidents such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, he did not complete his first term in office and served longer than only President Gerald Ford among this group of presidents. A skeptic might characterize this outpouring of support for Kennedy as a consequence of his untimely death, rather than any specific accomplishment the man achieved in office.
This reading of events ignores the immense popularity Kennedy enjoyed even while alive. Elected by the closest of margins, Kennedy soon established a wide reservoir of support with the American public. True, his ratings were falling at the time of his demise, but they ranked above the historical average for U.S. presidents even at their lowest point. While Kennedy's sad fate probably cannot be separated from his job performance when most Americans evaluate him, it is not the only reason he ranks among the most memorable of chief executives.
Explore President Obama's approval ratings in depth and compare them with those of past presidents in the Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Nov. 7-10, 2013, with a random sample of 1,039 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline and cell telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.