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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.

Such hazards are not unusual for incoming chief executives, especially during national crises. In the midst of the Depression, uncertainties in some quarters about Franklin D. Roosevelt's political gamesmanship and toughness clouded his White House arrival after the Democrats' defeat of the discredited Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover. The Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw despairingly told a rapt crowd at New York's Metropolitan Opera House that infighting among rival political branches and parties doomed Roosevelt's chances of lifting the country from its misery. "You will get nothing from him," Shaw declared. He "will inevitably be as great a disappointment as Mr. Hoover."

But skeptics' view of a callow, patrician, pre-presidential FDR faded quickly in the face of his aggressive assertion of executive powers, a series of maneuvers not without occasional failures. "Roosevelt made mistakes in fighting the Depression," said David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents -- from Richard M. Nixon to Bill Clinton -- who is now at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "He reversed course several times. But the public was very forgiving of FDR -- that kind of experimentation was expected then. FDR didn't get the country out of the valley during the early part of the administration. But he built a bridge across the valley in that first year, and that provided hope. It was enough for people. People now will count on Obama to do something like that, too -- it will be one of the early major tests."

But, with each new week, the tests grow more complicated for the president-elect. In mid-December, during a month that saw 524,000 more Americans lose their jobs, reports circulated of another tough week for Mississippi workers and job seekers. A nearly completed Toyota manufacturing facility just outside of Tupelo, a city about 200 miles northeast of little Hollandale but close enough for the desperate in the Delta to relocate if jobs became available, abruptly announced that it would not open as scheduled in 2010. It meant a loss of about 3,000 prospective jobs at the auto plant, especially tough news for residents of Tupelo, which also has had to cope with about 4,000 layoffs in the area's upholstered-furniture industry.

Activists and public officials in the Mississippi Delta have their own wish lists for Obama, mostly shovel-ready infrastructure projects that they say need only federal funding to put people to work and reinvigorate their communities. "We know that it can't all happen overnight," says Greenville Mayor Heather Hudson, who had an opportunity to make the case for her city during a brief car ride there with Obama on the eve of the Mississippi primary. "We'd be insane to believe that it could happen overnight. . . . But I don't think leaders around here will let him go without reminding him of what we need."

While U.S. unemployment hit a 16-year high of 7.2 percent in December, it has been in double digits for far longer in much of the Delta, and nearly 12 percent among blacks nationwide, according to government statistics. As in other distressed American communities, Delta officials and community activists intend to gently hold Obama's feet to the fire as they urge assistance. At the same time, thrilled by the election of the nation's first African American president, electrified by what Obama's ascendancy might presage both for the advancement of activist agendas and promising black politicians, they wish to avoid making any move that might undermine the success of his presidency.

The tension in those competing interests has created a delicate balancing act for the activists especially, an exercise in simultaneously expressing pride about Obama while asserting the needs of their constituencies.

"His election is a great achievement, and people are very excited," said Howard Boutté Jr., the president and chief executive of Mississippi Action for Community Education, a Greenville activist group that harnesses donations and mobilizes citizens to work for housing programs, economic development and educational improvements for the city. "But now that the campaign is over, people will be waiting to see results. He talked a lot during his campaign about the middle class and the poor. He has talked about the challenge with the auto companies, and he's talking about helping other parts of the country, and he needs to do all that. But the Delta's problems have always been here. If this region is not dealt with, it raises questions about the authenticity of your vision. . . . Maybe we can't expect too much during a first term. . . . But, at some point, if the sense is that the administration has let them down, there will be disappointment here."

In urban areas, liberal legislators black and white echo many of the same themes, delivering a gentle reminder to Obama. "I hope he realizes his legacy is dependent to a great extent on what he does for the least advantaged in our society," says Rep. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rush already has a unique place in history, having handed Obama his only electoral defeat, when the younger man challenged the incumbent Rush in a 2000 Democratic congressional primary in Chicago and lost by more than 30 percentage points.

An early supporter of Obama for president, Rush nonetheless vows that he and other members of the black caucus will pressure the new administration should it fall short of adequately addressing problems besetting the poor. "We look at his election as morning time for America," Rush adds. "I'd strongly caution him not to squander all the hope that is out there right now for him. . . . We won't shy away from our duty to speak truth to power if we must."

'Not the Only Ones Hurting'

In Hollandale, although she subsists near the poverty level, Helen Perkins regards herself as comparatively lucky because she works at an Early Head Start facility and has a modest home, which belonged to her late parents. The former mayor rides around gesturing at the town's manufacturing carcasses, skeletal buildings missing windowpanes. "See that?" She points at a faded white edifice, abandoned except for the pack of stray dogs running around it. "That used to be our catfish-processing plant, 200 to 300 jobs lost there in 2003 or so -- probably about 10 percent of all jobs in the town. Empty ever since."

Once, when cotton was king in these parts, when a drive along Highway 61 meant looking at never-ending fields of puffy whiteness, Hollandale was a hardscrabble but at least sturdy town, with about 20 percent of its workforce confidently relying on work in some part of the labor-intensive cotton industry. But, in recent years, low-maintenance, high-profit crops such as corn and soybeans have slowly driven away the cotton and most of its workforce. Perkins says she can sympathize with Michigan auto workers who have lost jobs in a changing economy. "Change has wiped us out here pretty good, too," she says. "I know we're not the only ones hurting. Look all over the country, look all over Mississippi."

Perkins hears so many residents expecting a quick transformation that she says she wants to tell them to "be realistic, give the man time, give him a few years at least."

She is staring at the town's shuttered catfish plant as she mutters this. A rusty truck sits in front of the plant, a man behind the wheel, going nowhere. "What Obama delivers to people will determine if people here stay excited, I guess," she says. "I'm not going to get disillusioned ever about him. But I worry for him. I know people need jobs. And I know some people here will maybe lose faith in him if something better doesn't come. People are going to be dogging him to get it. It could be hard. He's not God; he's a politician. Some people get the two confused sometimes."

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