By JOHN BALZAR
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Is there more to unite Americans than to divide them?
As we argue ourselves into a fever about Iraq, global warming, free versus fair trade, values, immigration, safety nets versus self-reliance, wealth and poverty, the place of religion, definitions of family, and all the rest, the question gathers like a storm cloud over our politics.
Are "we the people" still "a people"?
Or is "we the people" just a Pollyanna wheeze that lost significance in the arguments over whether George W. Bush stole the presidency or Bill Clinton defiled it, whether homosexuals should marry, or whether Christ would have driven an SUV and voted GOP.
Obama strides into these political whirlwinds with an arresting assertion: "Not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike," he writes in his new book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream."
From this optimistic vantage, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois takes sight on "reclaiming the American dream." The result is an easy-reading, congenial book that is halfway successful in making its point.
Obama attracts more than an ordinary share of political interest these days. With this second volume of memoir and musings, he jokingly acknowledges the expectations that have attached themselves to him. After all, didn't some wag declare that any mention of the senator must, according to unwritten law, "be preceded by the words 'rising star'?"
Make that "rising star in the Democratic Party," a designation not to be regarded lightly if only because so few in our nation's capital have earned it. Fewer still can discuss the word hope in a political context and be regarded as sincere.
Obama is such a man. He proves it by employing a fresh vocabulary to scrub away some of the toxins from contemporary political debate. Those polling categories that presume to define the chasm between citizens do not, Obama says, add up to the sum of our concerns or hint at where our hearts intersect.
Obama advances ordinary words such as empathy, humility, grace and balance into the extraordinary context of 2006's hyper-agitated partisan politics. The effect is not only refreshing but hopeful.
Taking the time
"Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 percent Democrat, and vice versa."
Not that he sweet-talks his way past the deficits of empathy, humility, grace and balance in today's America. For all the clamor about values, the Golden Rule is seldom evoked or even expected. "It's hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals."
As you might anticipate from a former civil-rights lawyer and a university lecturer on constitutional law, Obama writes convincingly about race as well as the place the Constitution holds in American life, not always an easy pairing for blacks. He writes tenderly about family and knowingly about faith.
Readers, no matter their party affiliation, may experience the uplifting sensation of comparing the everyday contemptuous view of politics that circulates in conversations with the practical idealism set down by this 45-year-old former state legislator who is included on every credible list of future presidential contenders.
Obama becomes more conventional and less assured in his terse overview of American foreign policy. Iraq is discussed by anecdote, and challenges elsewhere in the world are better explained than answered.
But where "The Audacity of Hope" founders is when Obama moves beyond the historic strengths of America to today's glaring vulnerabilities. That is, the free-fall economics of globalism that threatens the jobs, security, pensions, health and self-esteem of millions of Americans and that leaves millions more in dread.
He is a smaller, more partisan, less-confident leader when he apes conventional wisdom about education being the foremost cure for a domestic economy that outsources the work of engineers, lawyers, doctors and other educated white-collar Americans. Not until 2022 will today's kindergartners graduate from college. What of the years in the meantime? What of those Americans who have no gift for math or science?
The ominous truth is that the nation is in deep debt. Wages are stagnant in the face of huge productivity gains and soaring corporate profits. Personal savings are at a record low and personal debt an all-time high. Retirement promises are unraveling, health insurance problematic. Income disparities threaten the middle class. Social Security is heading for insolvency, while Medicare and Medicaid, to quote Obama, "are broken."
On the eve of a portentous midterm election, it may serve the purposes of Democrats to decry these eerie circumstances and move the conversation to Bush or the congressional page scandal. But a party that claims to represent working Americans on bread-and-butter issues is unlikely to prosper for long unless it finds ideas to match the scale of the challenges.
Here, one of the party's most incandescent lights plainly disappoints. Obama's optimism recedes. Too many of his responses are incremental, timid, tangential -- anything but audacious. He sums up his uncertainty for the future by citing an observation from former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin: Even if Americans alter economic course and "do everything right," it may not be enough.
Alas, a nation evermore unified by creeping anxiety is not the stuff of America's dreams.