Talk Newspaper: By Jeff Golden

Last week I used this space to write to Joe the Plumber. I asked if he'd be willing to cool his jets before jumping on the campaign to make life as miserable as possible for the new administration.

I asked him to "try on the possibility that Barack Obama is not an agent of evil. That his plan to raise the marginal tax rate — the rate paid on just the highest increment of income — on the wealthiest Americans from 35 percent back up to 39 percent, where it was ten years ago and less than the top rate in almost every other democracy, doesn't qualify as raging socialism or class warfare. That his plan to withdraw gradually from Iraq in deliberate cooperation with Iraq's neighbors may not be surrendering to terrorism or trashing our national security. That a full-on plan to develop green energy won't send you and your family into a cold cave to eat roots and berries. That we'll have to step outside our comfort zones — yours, mine, everyone's — to deal effectively with what's coming."

I haven't heard back from him yet. But think how busy the poor guy's been.

One reader didn't think it's realistic to ask Joe to give any slack when he's apparently not getting any in return: Obama is off to a bad start in reaching out to conservatives, or anyone who thinks he should not have been elected. 1. Choosing homeboy pitbull armtwister Emmanuel [sic] as CoS (a man who said "F**k Republicans" on the record); (2) not calling on a Fox News reporter at his presser"¦ (3) evading a question on taxes, despite changed economic realities since Aug; (4) dissing Nancy Reagan.

Which just shows how much is in the eye of the beholder: People I know see the selection of Rahm Emanuel and other early Obama moves as worrisome steps towards Clintonian pragmatism that leans more right than left.

The second online commenter told the first one to give it a rest: The people have spoken. Let's get behind the new President of the United States. Let the Limbaughs and the Honorés keep playing the game, let's you and I stop the "us and them" game they love to perpetuate and be optimistic.

Oh, indeed they do. And they've done it with a list of raging hot-button issues that have had us beating in each others' heads for years. Not a long list, but it's intense: abortion, same-sex marriage, civil rights for gays, prayer in school, criminalization of flag-burning. If you research the timelines on these issues, you'll discover a fascinating coincidence: They are almost never a big deal on odd-numbered years. We don't hold elections on odd-numbered years. Hmm. You don't suppose ... actually, I do.

I suppose that we're not the hyper-polarized nation that we're constantly called. Most of the venom flowing through politics comes from that short list of social issues, and over the years we've let it spill over to contaminate civic life. They're important issues, but their capacity to fire us up just isn't matched by their relevance to problems people face everyday. There are plenty of reasons these days to wake up before dawn, anxious and worried. But does anyone really wake up wondering if there's an American flag burning somewhere, or if two men or two women are sleeping with their arms around one other?

This silliness actually had less power this election year than in recent memory. It's much harder to distract voters with moral abstractions when they're losing homes, jobs, retirement savings and health care. There's at least one shred of good news about our crisis.

Predictions aren't worth much these days, but I'll make this one: We haven't seen the last of fear-based tactics to divide us. We have rough times ahead. They may resemble other historical moments when rising insecurity was purposefully transformed into much darker feelings.

We can choose something else. We can commit ourselves to keeping our eyes on the ball. One way to do that is to stay fiercely focused on two questions: What issues and challenges really matter most for my family and me, right now and tomorrow? And ... Which of the competing alternatives I'm hearing is most likely to deal with them in a way that works for us?

We won't all come to the same answers and skip merrily into the sunset. Gays and flags and school prayer will stay on top for some people. But I'm guessing that they'll gradually become fewer, and that almost all of us actually could choose — as the commenter above neatly put it — to stop the "us and them" game.

Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com).