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In Perspective: Jon Meacham on the delicate balance between public and private

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it must actually be like to sit behind that desk in the Oval Office. And I don’t imagine it feels good. History tells us it never has.

The only time in a long while contemporaries saw George Washington happy was on his last day in office; John Adams was so dispirited and gloomy that he left town at four o’clock in the morning on the day of Jefferson’s inaugural; and even Jefferson thought the presidency at best a “splendid misery.” These attempts at imaginative sympathy come more in hours of distress than of glory — which means there are lot more such moments when i am actually trying to put myself in the president’s shoes.

This is one such season. President Obama is now losing to “Republican Nominee” in polls — no name needed. The chief topic of the hour is the tension between the role of government in society and the economy. For Democrats, there is one. For Republicans, well, there may be one, but it is mighty small and may grow smaller as the campaign goes on.

But here is a little history for our anti-government friends who are trapped in the legendary Reaganland caricatures of welfare queens. The government founded universities. It built railroads, interstates, and airports. World War II ended the Great Depression with one of the great public-private industrial collaborations in the history of man. The government invented the Internet. It virtually eliminated extreme poverty among the elderly through Social Security, and it brought the assurance of the dignity of health care in later years through Medicare. The GI bill helped build the great American middle class.

But lest you big-government lovers become too cocky, here’s a little more history. Government has failed miserably, too, and expensively. We overpromised and underperformed on most anti-poverty programs; we have not found human capital and imagination commensurate with our investments in education. We have far too many Air Forces.

The fact is that America has been at her most prosperous when government and the private sector have been not at war, but in a wary, if often underplayed, alliance. History is unmistakable on this point.

That’s not going to keep the GOP cast of characters from turning government into a political piñata (image in honor of Governor Perry). But guess what’s going to happen. If one of these candidates in fact defeats President Obama next year, the president-elect is going to find himself — or herself — realizing that hey, government may not be such a demonic force after all, especially when you’re the one heading it. And then we should all try, with sincerity and conviction, to project imaginative sympathy to that poor, conflicted Republican president. I strongly suspect, however, that you and I both are going to find it harder to be generous-spirited toward a politician who failed to be so on the long road to the White House.

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.


  • jan

    One of the reasons why I continue to read you is the fact that you don’t adhere strictly to the (Reagan-era and forward) republican mantras. 

    I agree to some extent about a balance.  I don’t agree when “balance” prevents people from accessing medical care or when it puts people out on the street who are unable to survive without proper supervision and care.  Some members of the republican party and most of the tea party/libertarians (or whatever name they decide to adopt after 2012 on the advice of the PR people advising them) forget that life is temporary and you can’t take your money with you.  If you can pay your bills and help your children, that’s a victory.  If you can help others in addition to your family that’s an even better victory.  If you hang on to your money and refuse to help others when you can, you’re a loser in the end. 

    Obama’s failing or failed because he’s weak and because he didn’t deliver the change that people wanted so desperately after Bush II.     


    i agree with all you said accept for the last sentence,obama is trying he is 1 of the 1st presidents in my life to focus more on the u.s.economy ,it is the congress that is holding things up ,most of them dont care about the less fortunate because they already have their fortune

  • jan

    Obama had a democratic Congress for the first two years of his presidency and could have done pretty much anything he wanted to with a little pressure on reluctant members.  He continued the bailout.  He escalated the war(s) and he expanded/claimed rights he shouldn’t have.  He created the Deficit Commission which more or less morphed into Super Committee and he, himself, put social security and medicare on the table.  Obama made himself part of the problem and as far as I’m concerned will have to settle for a “legacy”, if that’s what you want to call it, similar to Harding or Hoover.   

  • grimnir’s man

    Stop listening to Meacham.  He was on Morning Joe last week defending the GWB administration against Tavis Smiley’s common sense observation that they lied us into war.  Meacham either has his head up his posterior, or he is secretly being paid to aid Cheney’s and Rusmsfeld’s revisionism.  They (the GWB folks) have been relatively successful with the repeated lie tactics.  Let’s get this straight – they lied and they knew they were lying when they: a) blamed Iraq for 9/11; b) claimed that Saddam still had WMD and intended to use them; and, c) told us that going to war against the wrong country would make us safer.

  • Dflann

    Unfortunately Jan, it just isn’t true that Obama had an easy Congress in his first two years. Among his toughest challengers have been the conservative democrats – particularly in the Senate (Baucus, Conrad, McCaskill, and the time Landrieu). As it turns out, said Senators and many Democrat House members are prepared to be a thorn in his side on the jobs act now headed to Congress.