Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and best-selling author, used history and humor to analyze the current state of the U.S. and where the country is headed under the new leadership of President Barack Obama in his speech Thursday in Owen L. Coon Auditorium.
In his lecture, “The State of the Nation: America Then and Now,” part of the Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series, Meacham applied his extensive historical knowledge to the political and economic challenges facing President Obama.
The 2008 election serves as a marker between “the way the world was before” and the way it will be after, Meacham said.
“The election of Obama was an automatic re-branding of the country,” he said.
Meacham opened the speech with a few jokes about his new novel, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” and about the scandals surrounding the ex-governor of Illinois.
“I’m delighted to be here,” he said. “Particularly in such a well-governed state.”
He quickly turned to serious matters, discussing the role of religion in politics, the legacy of culture wars in the United States, the current economic crisis, diversification and the role of youth in America, and tied each subject to history.
He emphasized how far the country has come since the 1960s in terms of cultural and racial acceptance.
“We are led by people who might look different, but who are not different,” he said. “This will be the legacy of President Obama.”
Meacham also focused on the generational changes that surfaced in the 2008 election.
“There’s this rising generation of engaged people whose views and predilections are different than customary political habits of the existing base of politically engaged people, which I believe is largely center-right,” he said.
Meacham compared Obama to past U.S. presidents, including Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy.
“I think Obama is most like John Kennedy,” he said. “He’s cool, he’s a generational shift, he’s pragmatic, he reads hardback books.”
Meacham said Obama also has to tackle many of the challenges that presidents like Kennedy, Roosevelt and Reagan faced.
“He’s come in at a moment where there is a crisis of confidence in the country, there is a sense of foreign threat … but he’s got to negotiate through that while practicing a form of democratic leadership that his predecessors did not do.”
Weinberg freshman Jonathan Forman heard about the speech in his history seminar on the Constitution and said he thought Meacham was an intelligent and funny speaker.
“I thought that some of the points he made regarding the generational change coming with Obama, and his comparisons of Obama and Kennedy, are very relevant in terms of how I think Obama is going to affect the nation,” he said.
Medill graduate student Michael Kurbjeweit attended Meacham’s speech because he said he wanted to hear someone who could approach issues without a “red or blue” bias.
“Everyone’s wondering how Obama is going to do,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to hear someone from a media organization.”
Even though Meacham acknowledged Obama is facing “a very steep slope,” he said he is optimistic that Obama will draw from the past to address current issues.
“Your former senator, our president, knows a lot of history,” he said. “He’s incredibly adept at applying it.”
But Meacham said even though Obama may be prepared, he will have trouble living up to the country’s high expectations for a quick fix to its economic problems.
“All the stars are in alignment if we weren’t in the middle of an Armageddon,” he said.