The Senate is ground zero of this dysfunction, he said. "Having the capacity to stop forward motion on all manner of things is something that has taken the traditional American tendency to be divisive and really put it on steroids."
And it is not that any of the procedural moves which stymie change are so different, such as the current battle over the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that could soon ripple across the country.
For instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985 "tried to set up fiscal traps for the country to force it into a certain kind of discipline," said Meacham. "[And] the filibuster has been with us for some time. It's just that all of these things are being used more and more ferociously."
Meacham himself poses -- and then answers -- the obvious follow-up question.
"Why is that? Are the current officeholders any more partisan in their souls than previous generations? I don't think so. I think it's this odd combination of 'base purity,' is the best way to put it."
Meacham referred to what he dubbed the "existential political threat" for a contemporary politician. That is, being challenged in a primary race in your own party, where you must echo and truckle to the most conservative, purist views of your party's hard-core base.
"When you talk to members of Congress, they no longer talk about the general election. They talk about the fear of being challenged in a primary," he said.
Whether Obama can forge a way through this tangled terrain and be worthy of the same rank as the great political actors portrayed in Meacham's books is still an open question, he said. To quote from one of his book titles, what might President Obama learn from the "Art of Power" as practiced by President Jefferson?
"I think that Jefferson was quite effective at reaching on a human level to the other players in the system," said the author. "He insisted on using the White House as a social center in order to bring members of Congress in. They might not agree with what the president said but at least should hear him say it. That was a key part of Jefferson's governing philosophy.
"The other -- and I think Obama does this well -- is a willingness to part from dogma when you had to. No one was quicker to compromise or cut a deal than Jefferson. In power, he was quite willing to trade horses and get something done and would not stand on philosophical purity. I think the president is quite good at that."
The larger test -- "because the story's not over yet," Meacham added -- is how well a leader's vision translates into the mechanics of actually making something happen.
"I define the art of power -- an 'art' not a 'science' -- as the capacity to articulate an ideal, then master the process well enough to bring that ideal closer to reality. When you think about American history, we've never had a truly transformative president who has not been good at both -- been a great communicator and great legislative mechanic."
Those are skills that don't necessarily go together, he noted.
"Jefferson and Jackson had both. Roosevelt and John Kennedy had both. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had both. We don't yet know whether President Obama has both. So, the jury's still out on that."
The fundamental promise
So, what of the country itself and the future of what has sometimes been called the great American Experiment? Is he hopeful or not so hopeful about the future of this experiment?
Meacham reached for a little Churchill.
"Churchill once said 'The future is unknowable, but the past may give us hope,'" he said. "My intellectual tendency is to take the view we've come through storm and strife so many times before that surely we will again.
"The one caveat I would add to that is the most troubling statistic in contemporary American life is the continuing decline in median household income, the widening gap between the well-off and the broad whole of the country."
Economic inequality and its implications can be more difficult to recover from than a lot of other political and cultural problems, he said.
"So, I do think this is an important time with important choices about investment and the role of government sitting before us, at a time when the political system does not seem commensurate with those challenges.
"I am deeply concerned about whether that fundamental American promise that each generation has left things better off for the next generation will, in fact, be broken in my own time," he said. "So, it's a complicated hour."
All of that said, the "good news" is that everyone can contribute good will, thought and energy to what is, after all, a solvable problem, he said.
"It's a problem complicated in its solution, but it's not complicated to grasp it. We are a stronger country when more of us are better off than when fewer of us are. We are a better country when we are more welcoming to newcomers and those who may not be part of the mainstream than when we are less welcoming."
The long view of history serves up one of its most stringent lessons for the survival of a country and its people, he said.
"History teaches us that the fate of the many often determines the fate of the country as a whole."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.