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Andrew Cohen, a former Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail, is author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Black America says that Barack Obama has failed to calm its swelling anxiety over the fate of its sons and daughters before the authority of White America. It thinks the President is aloof, distant and cautious, reluctant to use his office to address racial inequality.

So Mr. Obama struggles to assure blacks without alienating whites – a delicate response that will shape his legacy as the nation's first black president. It recalls the situation that John Fitzgerald Kennedy faced a generation ago amid urgent calls for executive and legislative intervention.

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Indeed, if President Obama, an eloquent, cerebral black moderate, looks at the words and deeds of President Kennedy, an eloquent, cerebral white moderate, he will find lessons in the power of presidential rhetoric then and the limits of presidential power now.

In 1963, the issue of civil rights was pressing down on Mr. Kennedy with exquisite fury. It was dictating choices to him and demanding decisions of him. To his critics, like those of Mr. Obama today, Mr. Kennedy was not doing enough.

It reached a crescendo that spring, when police turned high-pressure hoses and snarling dogs on black children filling the streets of Birmingham, Ala. "The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand," Mr. Kennedy observed.

The American Jewish Congress called his gradualism on racial equality "a folly and a failure." Rev. Martin Luther King said he had substituted "an inadequate approach for a miserable one."

Mr. Kennedy, worried about re-election in 1964, was careful. In early 1963, he had resisted calls from Dr. King to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation. Later, he wondered whom to send as his representative to the funeral of Medgar Evers, the civil-rights leader murdered in Mississippi.

In 2013, Mr. Obama declined an invitation to speak at Gettysburg on the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's fabled address. More recently, he wondered whom to send to the funeral of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. That officer was recently not indicted by a grand jury.

By June 11, 1963 – perhaps the most important day in the civil-rights movement – Mr. Kennedy saw his moment. After facing down George Wallace and integrating the University of Alabama, Mr. Kennedy decided to address the nation on civil rights that evening. His speechwriter, the mellifluous Ted Sorensen, had two hours to write the speech, which was unfinished when Mr. Kennedy went on air.

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Like Mr. Obama today, Mr. Kennedy wanted to find a way to ask Americans to look into themselves. He surveyed the sad state of "Negroes" in 1963 and declared civil rights less a legal question than a moral one. Then he announced the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was, to the white majority, an appeal to justice. It humanized black Americans and challenged white Americans to consider another reality. "Who among us would be content to have the colour of his skin changed and stand in his place?" Mr. Kennedy asked. "Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

The speech was a head-spinning performance, the last two minutes delivered extemporaneously. Black leaders were elated. "Can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!" exclaimed Dr. King.

Mr. Kennedy knew the power of rhetoric. When he asked the networks to broadcast his speech, they agreed. Mr. Obama's national address on immigration last month was not covered by the networks.

As an instrument of influence, the presidency matters less today, which makes it harder for Mr. Obama to recast race relations through the bully pulpit.

Mr. Kennedy embraced civil rights on June 11, 1963, ignoring advisers who warned that it would kill his legislative program in Congress and kill the Democrats in the South. He knew, as president, what he had to do. He knew he could not insult Americans – he softened some of Mr. Sorensen's words – but appealed to their better angels, using the magic of rhetoric to create the marble of law.

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Mr. Kennedy was no less convinced, as Mr. Obama allowed recently, that "change is hard and incremental." But JFK felt he must lead.

Today, Mr. Obama seeks to reshape a society riven with race, "to bridge some of those gaps in understanding so that the country realizes this is not just a black problem or a brown problem," he says. "This is an American problem."

In Mr. Kennedy, he will see a belatedly impassioned president who, in a more segregated America, at greater political risk, against longer odds, tried to do much the same thing.

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