In Ailing Delta, High Hopes Add to Burden For Obama

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

HOLLANDALE, Miss. -- Helen Perkins can feel the worries of her neighbors -- and their expectations. "The things that some of our people hope from Obama -- more help, better homes in a hurry -- sound like they're hoping for a miracle from God," she says.

At 63, Perkins lives in Hollandale, a town of about 2,900 in the Mississippi Delta, historically a fertile territory for big agriculture and bigger misery. Chronically poor, largely African American, loyally Democratic in an otherwise very red state, the Delta is a land where deprivation and diminished dreams are as indigenous as cotton. Poverty levels, obesity and diabetes rates, teenage pregnancy statistics, failing businesses: All the bad indices are woefully high in the Delta.

Not far from the site of the first of Hollandale's many collapsed houses is a sign at the town border: "Welcome to Hollandale: A town preparing for the future today." For many expectant people here, that future will turn on Barack Obama.

On Election Day, Hollandale went for Obama in a landslide, giving him 78 percent of its vote, or 1,279 votes to John McCain's 367. A former mayor of the town, and the first African American to hold the position, Perkins never had seen voting lines so long at the Hollandale municipal hall, where more than 100 residents lined up before the polls opened at 7 a.m. "There were some people who'd never voted because they'd never seen the point in voting," she said. "Barack has made them believe; Barack has given them hope."

For the same reason, she sees political risks for Obama, in the Delta and every other distressed American community that voted heavily for him. "I know some people will be disillusioned if their lives don't change much in the next eight years," she says. "Even with Barack in there, they don't really believe in the system -- they think it's lowdown, dirty, dog-eat-dog. But they're giving it a chance now because of him. A lot is at stake. If it doesn't work out, there'll be more apathy and anger than ever. People will really be dogging him."

Since the start of his political ascension, Obama has served as that rare vessel into which disparate voters have poured their sometimes conflicting dreams. For Perkins and others in the Delta, he embodied the transformative politics of the moment: cool at a time when the prototypical pol ran bombastically hot, a trumpeter of reform who wanted to "turn the page" on political dynasties like those of the Clintons and Bushes, and a trailblazer whose very presence as an African American with a viable shot at winning the presidency beckoned an unprecedented change at once generational, racial, epochal.

Back in August, an enraptured Perkins watched his nomination acceptance speech on television. "Folks around here saw what they'd thought they'd never see in their lives -- a black person nominated for president," she said. "Gave you a lot to believe in. Anything was possible now."

The night seems long ago. By the end of the month came Wall Street's near-catastrophe, a run of panic that left financial institutions and markets on the brink of collapse after years of speculation and greed. Overnight, the campaign's discourse was correspondingly flipped on its head. A government-funded bailout ensued, and the collective American shudder that followed has given way since to naked anxiety amid bad news getting worse. Cascading job losses, frightened consumers not spending, banks not lending, and the ongoing struggles of Wall Street, the housing industry, U.S. automakers and manufacturers in all sectors mean the country is a very different place from the America to which Obama spoke during the convention.

Now crises come at the president-elect from divergent fronts, with the possible strategies for easing some problems threatening to undermine his ability to deal with others. He faces two wars, a worsening economy likely to hemorrhage jobs late into next year, and a measure of trepidation from skeptics in and out of his Democratic Party about his administration's approximately $800 billion economic stimulus package, expected to usher in trillion-dollar-plus deficits as it hopes to stave off a paralyzing deflation on the one hand while eluding on the other a spiral of debt that could choke credit and limit future American investment opportunities.

And if that weren't all vexing enough, Obama bears the hopes of Americans who live at the bottom of the nation's economic ladder and voted for him in disproportionately high numbers. A series of worsening social and economic indicators reflect the desperation and dysfunction of life in the margins. A rising incarceration rate now means that an unprecedented number of Americans -- slightly more than one in every 100 adults, including one in every 15 African American adults -- are behind bars. The ranks of food stamp recipients have climbed to more than 31 million low-income Americans, a record number that comes to about one in every 10 citizens.

The president-elect faces added pressure in places such as Hollandale, where many residents, having awaited an Obama for a lifetime, now count on him to live up to the fervor generated by his candidacy. Their euphoria has been tempered by questions about how the drain on the nation's coffers might affect the Obama administration's response to the pressing needs of American communities that are hurting most. Some activists in impoverished pockets in and out of the Delta, long accustomed to feeling left behind, wonder whether they may be in store yet again for disappointment. They believe in Obama, but they are asking whether history and economics might have already conspired to stack the deck against them -- whether the money needed to prop up elites in New York and middle-class autoworkers and their companies might not leave enough for all the needs of their cities. Their message to Obama is terse: While the country has changed, the pain of places like the Delta has not.

'Can't All Happen Overnight'

After a year that saw the loss of 2.6 million jobs, leaving more than 11 million Americans out of work, anxiety defines the national mood. And yet for a variety of reasons -- everything from the political and social transformation wrought by the nation's election of its first black president to the troubles of his predecessor's administration -- the approaching Obama inauguration has sparked a fever of hope that rivals any presidential transition in American history. That paradox is at once a triumph and a burden for Obama: Admirers worry that such enormous expectations carry the risk that a slow or failed recovery will trigger a sense of betrayal directly proportional to the excitement invested in him.

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