Michael Kazin: Why Obama's a star

Roundup: Historians' Take

Why, just two years after being elected to the Senate, has Barack Obama set so many Democratic -- and some Republican -- imaginations on fire? The Illinois Democrat is certainly a magnetic speaker who delivers original phrases in composed yet passionate tones. His life, as told in the powerful memoir Dreams From My Father , seems a model for the globalized future: The only child of a biracial, bicontinental union, he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, then went on to become a community organizer in Chicago and the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. And his athletic good looks have landed him on the cover of a major fashion magazine, with a spread by Annie Leibovitz. Not since John F. Kennedy has a junior senator so quickly become a national celebrity and a possible candidate for the White House.

But what's most impressive about Obama, 45, is an intelligence that his new book displays in abundance. He articulates a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral. The Audacity of Hope -- the title comes from a sermon by his Chicago pastor -- trumpets no unifying theme or grand theory about how the American dream will be reclaimed and by whom. Chapters bear such prosaic titles as "Values," "Opportunity" and "Faith." But in a disarmingly modest way, Obama offers a more sensible perspective on "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life" than his more seasoned Capitol Hill colleagues have provided.

Take the problem of the big money that is indispensable to winning a statewide or national campaign. Unlike most Democrats, Obama does not dwell on the corrupt antics of the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his friends. His concern is about a more serious and enduring threat to democracy: class inequality. During his own Senate race in 2004, Obama had to spend a good deal of time with "law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists." Most of these donors, he acknowledges, were "smart, interesting people" who asked for no specific favors. Still, they couldn't help but express "the perspectives of their class." Their wealth prevented them from understanding loyal members of labor unions, evangelical churches or the NRA. As firm believers in a meritocracy, the donors implicitly denied that "there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score." Lawmakers who routinely move in such circles, Obama adds, tend to neglect "the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population -- that is, the people that I'd entered public life to serve."

That willingness to criticize his own well-heeled supporters stems partly from Obama's years of work with the working poor. It reflects a desire to transcend accusations and talking points and to offer a fresh look at undeniable but seemingly insoluble problems. Thus Obama agrees with conservatives who argue that teen motherhood and the glorification of "gangsta life" help keep young blacks from escaping the ghetto. But as an African American, he also recognizes each violent criminal as a cousin or brother who was not preordained to go wrong. "African Americans understand that culture matters but that culture is shaped by circumstance," he observes, and the longer policymakers and the middle-class public ignore inner-city poverty or try to explain it away, the more endemic it becomes. To address the problem, Obama recommends a bundle of pragmatic policies that would draw both on public funds and the initiative of local businesses: low-cost child-care centers, neighborhood health clinics, job programs for ex-felons.

Obama's own experiences also help him illuminate the root causes of anti-Americanism abroad. During his time in Indonesia, the archipelago was at the beginning of an oil-generated boom that spread prosperity, unevenly, throughout the islands. The United States had helped install Sukarno, a military dictator, after a bloodbath that claimed at least an estimated 500,000 lives. But once the Indonesian economy collapsed in the 1990s, militant Islamists were able to gain a hearing for their diatribes against modernist culture and American power. For Obama, this new "land of strangers" serves as a lesson about the way that U.S. influence -- cultural, economic and military -- has both uplifted and angered the world, in roughly equal measure. He also points out that most Americans can't find Indonesia on a map....

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