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Obama Reaches Out to Michigan

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-detroi.jpgSen. Barack Obama, Detroit (Campaign Photo)

TAYLOR, Mich. — Depressed. Struggling. Lost.

Any one of those words could describe what has happened to Michigan in recent decades. Coming here, it’s hard to fathom that this was once the manufacturing center of America — and the world — where generations counted on lifelong jobs while producing the cars that would crisscross postwar America and change the face of the nation.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Yes, Michigan definitely took hits during the late 1970s and early 80s. But recently, the entire state seems decimated by rising gas prices and a turn away from the trucks and SUVs that kept the big three automakers alive. Within the past month, General Motors announced the closure of four truck and SUV plants, and Ford announced suspension of operations at plants, including the one producing its once uber-popular Explorer. Unemployment hovers around 7 percent—the highest in the country. Major cities — particularly Detroit and Flint — are regularly cited as centers of urban blight. In well-heeled suburbs like Grosse Pointe and Birmingham, plush homes go unsold while parents talk about their children, having graduated from college, being forced to leave the state because of the lack of jobs. If ever a place needed a savior this is it.

And so the Barack Obama-as-Michigan-messiah project began in earnest late in the morning of June 16, in an auditorium on the campus of Kettering University in Flint, Mich. The Illinois senator had come to a city that for decades has been synonymous with unemployment and rust and and, to paraphrase the late Nelson Algren, a constant inability to overcome itself.

What kind of reception Obama would receive despite the state’s union loyalties and support of the last two Democratic presidential nominees, still seemed in doubt. He had angered many state Democrats by signing a pledge not to run in the state’s primary– and going as far as to take his name off the ballot. Moreover, he’d been perceived, through certain comments, as somehow being against the auto industry.

But now, as the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, he needed Michigan as much as they needed him. With the primaries finally behind him, he was ready to earn their trust. Polls show him running nearly even with presumed Republican nominee John McCain. The state went Democratic in the last two presidential elections.

“He’s here now and that’s what matters,” said Maria Hope, the principal of an elementary school in Flint, as she waited for Obama. “It’s miserable here. We’re looking for hope and I think he can bring it.”

Sitting behind her, Jody Wright said bluntly, “Flint is the most depressing place in America. We need some kind of vision. That’s why I’m here.”

Soon enough, following a fiery introduction by Sen. Carl Levin, Obama emerged to the requisite standing ovation. Sharing the stage with him before he spoke were some of the state’s, and the party’s, heavy weights. Among them were Rep. John Dingell, now in his 52nd year in Congress, along with his wife Debbie, herself a Michigan superdelegate and member of the Democratic National Committee. Beside them was the increasingly unpopular Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the source of ire for many in the state as economic conditions have gone from bad to cataclysmic.

Once he had control of the stage, Obama delivered a speech that struggled to straddle two worlds. One was his national message of building a new, environmentally friendly economy. The other dealt with the joblessness and poverty that is the direct result of the decline of the domestic auto industry, which Obama and others have assailed for its myopic business model.

What he offered was a relief in the form of a new industry and new way of life. Obama promised a $150-billion energy plan to create a green sector of the economy that would create 5 million jobs over the next 10 years. With that, he promised that jobs–”good jobs”–would return to Michigan. People would return to the assembly line, but this time to build hybrids and electric cars, along with the wind turbines that will supposedly power America in the years to come. He pledged to double federal funding for research and development at Michigan universities and to invest in high-speed rail.

“We’ll help manufacturers — particularly in the auto industry — convert to green technology and help workers learn the skills they need,” Obama said to the assembled crowd. “And unlike George Bush, I won’t wait until the sixth year of my presidency to sit down with the automakers. I’ll meet with them during my campaign, and I’ll meet with them as president to talk about how we’re going to build the cars of the future right here in Michigan.”

“We need to provide immediate help to families who are struggling in places like Flint,” he went on to say, “but we also need a serious plan to create new jobs and industry.”

John Dingell, who had initially pledged his support to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, sat down in a metal folding chair in the press filing room after the event. Even at age 81, Dingell is a mighty presence in national politics and Democratic political cycles. As his wife Debbie chatted with another reporter, I asked him whether Obama could win Michigan, given the fact he chose not to run in that strange non-primary primary in January.

“Remember this is June,” Dingell said as he slid slightly in his chair, “We’ve got time.”

“That little blond whirlwind led it for Gore,” Dingell said, pointing to his wife, who had chaired the former vice president’s efforts in Michigan eight years before. “And when we did it for Kerry, we did it for far less of a candidate than we had out there.”

Asked about Obama’s perceived tenuous relationship with the auto industry, Dingell said, “I didn’t hear him say a thing against the auto industry.

“Besides,” Dingell said, “when he wins he’ll have me looking over his shoulder.”

But where one really saw the messianic appeal of Obama was in Detroit, a few hours later. By 4:30, some four hours before the start of his speech/Al Gore love fest at Joe Louis Arena — the rapidly aging home of the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings — thousands were on line. Mostly African-American, they stood in nearly unbearable heat as vendors walked up and down, selling Obama t-shirts and buttons.

For the faithful he was worth waiting for.

“It’s bad all over,” said Clolottra Moore, who has spent the last 17 years working at an unemployment office in Detroit. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible.”

“I think he can elicit change,” said Karen Page-Wade, who, like her husband works two jobs to support her family of four. “His charisma, his inspiration can generate bipartisan support.”

Putting it as succinctly as possible, Patrick Ridgeway, a supervisor at the MGM Casino in Detroit (one of the city’s few new employers) said, “I need Barack in there.”

Later, the 20,000 who filled the highest rafters of the Joe turned the Obama event into less of a rally than an AC/DC concert with Gore and Granholm serving as the senator’s opening act. With the decibel level reaching near dangerous levels, reporters who’d put on sound-reducing head phones could still hear Obama as he spoke about the perceived atrocities of the Bush administration; chastised those who had booed Granholm when she spoke about Clinton, and promised that Gore–who had, at last, thrown his support behind a candidate–would have a role in his administration.

It was Obama at his pinnacle– a speaker who could bring thousands to their feet, cause them to follow his every direction, to begin to cheer when he lauded the accomplishments of Clinton, whom they had previously showed only disdain for. More than an aspirational figure, he’d become the man who could deliver them from darkness, their last best hope.

Such concerns and worries could be seen even in the relatively young of the state. Consider the 30 students, all attending the Downriver campus of Wayne Community College with the help of loans or financial aid, who filled one of the smaller events yesterday. They gathered to tell Obama their stories and fears about whether they could afford to continue with their own upward mobility through education. Sitting with her fellow aspiring dental hygienists — all wearing light blue t-shirts — Heather Smith, 23, whose father had recently lost his manufacturing job said: “We’re all worried what happens when we graduate. In Michigan there’s nothing going on right now.

“I would like to leave,” Smith said when asked if she’d like to stay in the state after graduation. “It’s so bad now.”

Indeed even as Obama spoke to the students, the gravity of his charged task, should he defeat Sen. John McCain in November, seemed omnipresent. This will not be easy. He must change not only the mindset of a pummeled population but reroute the course of a wide-spread economic disaster that has been decades in the making.

It is an American tradition to move on, to build anew, leaving the old world behind. To make good on his words, the presumed Democratic nominee must not follow that path but instead return to finish what he started, to help the wounded bird rise again as something else entirely: a figure full of flame and power and velocity. In Michigan, he must give rise to the phoenix.

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