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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.