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The View from People Who Make a Difference

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, January 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

The View from People Who Make a Difference


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

In the White House, John F. Kennedy offered Ben Bradlee one of the finer definitions of our craft. "What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting," JFK remarked, is "the struggle to answer that single question: 'What's he like?' " I have never come across a clearer mission statement, and the spirit of Kennedy's point informs this special edition of the magazine, our first Interview Issue. Rather than interposing ourselves between you and a collection of thinkers and doers, we thought it wisest to convene the most interesting people we could to talk about the future and let you get a sense of what they are like for yourself.

What comes next is our concern in the following pages, but before we move forward we should pause for a moment to look back. The immediate past is particularly instructive, I think, for 2009 offers an object lesson in the management of expectations. Things are neither as bad as many feared, nor as good as many hoped, since that cold, clear noontime when Barack Obama became president.

Given the still-unfruitful search for innovation to drive the economy and the dispiritingly high unemployment rate, our domestic politics are in an unhappy place at year's end. The threats abroad, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran, remain maddeningly complex. This has been the most momentous first year for a presidency since 1981, and one could make a strong case for 1933. In both instances Americans were fortunate in our leaders, men who, in their time, inspired great love and great hate. We do not yet know whether Obama will one day join their ranks, but it seems inarguable that, whatever our politics, we should hope so.

As ever, though, it is fashionable to be critical of the president, even dismissive. He is a socialist, or he is a sellout to Wall Street; he doesn't understand business, or he is too captive to corporate interests; he is weak abroad, or he is a Bush who reads Niebuhr. He is attacked for doing too much, and then for accomplishing too little; for being too visible, but not explaining himself well enough. Such is the nature of the job. Obama is constrained by history and subject to perennial second-guessing, but that is the price of responsibility, and there are as yet no signs of one of the most pernicious of presidential characteristics: self-pity.

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