WASHINGTON — A reliable applause line in Barack Obama's campaign speeches comes when he warns that change won't happen overnight or easily. Nor will it come as a result of a single election. People will have to work at it.

He tells students they'll have to put down their video games and pick up a book. Parents will need to turn off the TV, spend more time with their kids and read to them.

This is hardly heavy lifting. It's a faint echo of John F. Kennedy's rousing call to action that inspired a generation: "Ask not what your country can do for you ... "

But if reading isn't as grand a goal as the Peace Corps or putting a man on the moon, recognizing its value in the struggle for racial equality is an important step in the right direction.

When Obama talked about race relations last week, he placed families and personal responsibility at the center of the struggle.

"And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny," he said.

Of the three leading presidential candidates, Obama most senses the public's appetite for a concerted national effort to help Americans believe they can write their own destiny.

"Investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper," he said.

Interestingly, if the next president — whoever it is — makes reading part of the domestic agenda, it will please someone in the Bush White House. First lady Laura Bush, a former librarian, has made reading a cause.

In a speech to book publishers earlier this month, Bush lamented that young children are reading less, reading scores are flat among middle-schoolers and scores are declining among high-school seniors.

"That's not because they can't read. It's because they think they don't enjoy reading," she said.

Bush, who has tried to encourage reading by starting the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, has traveled the world championing the right of women to read.

Imagine where we'd be if her husband had declared war on illiteracy instead of in Iraq.

It turns out American families may intend to read with their little ones more than they actually read.

A 2005 household survey found that 86 percent of pre-kindergarten children had been read to three or more times the preceding week by a family member. But the National Center for Education Statistics is skeptical of such self-reported results.

"Parents may overestimate both their involvement in home literacy activities and their children's skills because they recognize that such activities and skills are socially desirable," according to the National Institute for Literacy.

"Socially desirable" isn't half of it. Reading is so basic and consequential for personal success and the nation's future that it should be a cornerstone on which education and economic policies are built.

Estimates of the number of adult illiterates in the United States vary greatly, but there are signs we are lagging behind. The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey in 2003 compared six countries' ability to read and use numbers. The United States outperformed Italy in both areas, but was beaten by Bermuda, Canada, Norway and Switzerland.

Bush told the publishers, "A nation that does not read for itself cannot think for itself. And a nation that cannot think for itself risks losing both its identity and its freedom."

She continued, "Ray Bradbury was right when he said, 'You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."' For people to believe they can write their own destiny, they must be able to read.

Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service. E-mail [email protected]. Scripps Howard News Service