The Democrats' `rising star' in print

Analysis//Barack Obama

October 22, 2006|By John Balzar | John Balzar,Special to the Sun

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 in our affairs, the definitions of family, and all the rest, the question gathers like storm clouds over our politics.

Are "we the people" still "a people"? Or is that just a Pollyannaish wheeze that lost whatever mythical significance it may have had in the rising 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?

Barack Obama strides into these political whirlwinds with an arresting assertion: "Not so far beneath the surface," he writes, "I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike." From this optimistic vantage, the junior senator from Illinois takes sight on "reclaiming the American dream." The result is a just released easy-reading, congenial book -The Audacity of Hope - that is at least halfway successful in making its point.

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.

Obama attracts far more than an ordinary share of political interest these days. With this second volume of memoirs and musings, he jokingly acknowledges the stratospheric 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'?" Fewer still anywhere on the partisan landscape can discuss the word "hope" in a political context and be regarded as the least bit sincere.

Obama is such a man, and he proves it by employing a fresh and buoyant vocabulary to scrub away some of the toxins from contemporary political debate. Those polling categories that presume to define the vast chasm between us do not, Obama reminds us, add up to the sum of our concerns or hint at where our hearts otherwise intersect.

At town hall meetings, he writes, a "young flaxen-haired woman in the middle of farm country will deliver a passionate plea for intervention in Darfur, or an elderly black gentleman in an inner-city neighborhood will quiz me on soil conservation." Obama advances ordinary words like "empathy," "humility," "grace" and "balance" into the extraordinary context of 2006's hyper-agitated partisan politics. The effect is not only refreshing but hopeful.

"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 yawning deficits of empathy, humility, grace and balance in today's America.

For all the clamor about traditional values, the Golden Rule is seldom evoked or even expected anymore. "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 lofty status of the Constitution, not always an easy pairing for African-Americans. He writes tenderly about family and knowingly about faith.

Readers, no matter what their party affiliation, may experience the oddly uplifting sensation of comparing the everyday contemptuous view of politics that circulates so widely in our civic conversations with the practical idealism set down by this slender, smiling 45-year-old former state legislator who is included on virtually 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 chiefly by anecdote, and challenges elsewhere are better explained than answered.

But where The Audacity of Hope most painfully 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, the security, the pensions, the health and the self-esteem of millions of Americans and that leaves millions more in dread.

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