Americans need to hear this message more then do Europeans, and more than in 2004 when it catapulted Obama onto the national scene. We need to hear it in Kansas and California and every corner of the nation. Rarely has the need for partnership in America been greater and never have we felt its absence more.
In Berlin, Obama reminded his audience of the dangers of living in a splintered world. International challenges will not be met unless nations and peoples learn to work together as inhabitants of a crowded, interconnected planet.
Bridging fault lines is no less important here. But in almost seven decades, I’ve never seen our nation as divided and our people as mistrustful of each other as we are now, and that includes the upheavals of the 60’s. Then, at least, we were bashing each other in the open over well-defined issues like the war in Vietnam and civil rights.
The divisions in America today are more insidious, not so much the subjects of public battles as gnawing away at us from the inside. It’s easy for the Karl Roves among us to rub those sores raw, destroying whatever trust and compassion there might have been and stoking enough intolerance, it often seems, to expand every thin crack of race, class, education or religion into a major breach.
The growing wealth gap makes bridge-building that much harder. It isn’t just exploding executive pay vs. stagnant worker pay and jobs lost altogether, tax cuts that favor the super-rich and the gutting of federal regulations that mostly protect the poor. It’s the social consequences of these trends. If you’ve got the bucks, now you can isolate yourself in a gated community, buy your way into faster lanes for driving or moving through airports, and chain off beaches that only you can walk on. Eight years ago, Bob Putnam’s book Bowling Alone brilliantly described the rapid weakening of the social fabric of America. Now it’s worse. The sense that we’re all in this together now seems archaic and naïve. We are two nations—at least.
It isn’t just the anger, fear and isolation caused by eroding social links that worries me, it’s the political incompetencies that result from our growing loss of community. The Divided States of America, fueled by ignorant stereotypes and slogans, cannot possibly solve complex problems that demand joint action, including health care, immigration and energy. The Founding Fathers didn’t come up with E Pluribus Unum as a bumper sticker, but as a practical , policy-making necessity.
The day after Obama’s Berlin speech, David Brooks sniffed in the New York Times that “Optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s just Disney.”
Brooks missed the point, made in the Bible 5,000 years ago: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” There’s a time for prescriptive speeches and there’s a time for visionary speeches, and Obama, unlike Brooks, keenly understands the difference.Brooks (and others) also missed the stark political point, caught by Charles Rich, also in the Times, that “Obama-branded change is snowballing, whether it’s change you happen to believe in or not.” No matter the fuming of conservative pundits, the vision raised so eloquently by Barack Obama clearly is tapping into a deeply felt inner need around the planet and, like other powerful visions in history, can gain—is already gaining—the power to generate a substantive reality, shaping events and moving markets. It’s no accident that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki suggested a timetable for American troop withdrawals that matches almost exactly the views of the Democratic candidate for President.
As the likely next leader of the United States after eight years of arrogant, bullying foreign policy, Obama was right in Berlin to begin rebuilding a vision of America as a willing participant of a global partnership, finding real answers to the problems that test our times, including Iraq.
Now he needs to repeat the call for that same vision of partnership within our own borders, a vision of an America coming together to solve common challenges. He needs to repeat that call in Kansas and California and every corner of the nation. He needs to remind us that the American adventure is a shared one or it is nothing.