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Obama's countdown to destiny: Many experience a resurgence of faith

Obama's countdown to destiny
Many experience a resurgence of faith


WASHINGTON -- Faith is a funny thing.

In metro Detroit, lots of us have faith Joe Dumars knows what he's doing with the Pistons, faith in American-made cars, faith that the work on I-75 will end someday. We have faith things will get better, that we'll keep our homes; faith in our friends, in our neighbors, in our values.

And these days, many have faith in Barack Obama. You don't have to listen too hard to hear it or look too far to find it.

"It's better days for Detroit, you'll see," said George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22 in Detroit. "You can only bottom out and then you can't go anywhere but up."

At noon Tuesday on the western steps of the Capitol, the United States will inaugurate a wholly different kind of president, unique because he is an African American in a nation where so many historical arguments bear the weight of slavery. Still, he won an improbable campaign in which he reassured us of the commonality of our shared goals and traditions. He rode a wave of economic uncertainty and partisan angst to his new address, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., White House, USA.

The very fact of his coming has created hope. And more.

As a union man, McGregor preaches the promise of the cars that can be made -- green cars and others that build up Detroit once again under an Obama presidency. As an African American, he sees a nation that elected a black man as its president, closing in on the promise of a 233-year-old creed that "all men are created equal."

Of Detroit, he says: "It might not be bigger, but it will be better."

Farhan Latif, 27, is working on his master's degree in public administration at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He sees: "A great level of hope. People are really looking forward to some kind of change."

More than that, many of them know it is coming.

And that's what separates hope from faith.
A promise of better things to come in image and reality

The expectations for this 47-year-old son of a Kenyan man and Kansas woman are huge. So -- among many -- is the faith being invested in him -- in metro Detroit, in Michigan, across the nation and around the world. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed a whopping 77% of respondents like Obama -- even though 22% of those didn't agree with his politics.

In Germany, the foreign minister speaks of "a new dimension of cooperation" between America and Europe. In Mexico, officials look to help from the United States to crack down on increasing drug violence. From Florida to Washington state and California to Maine, the faithful talk about health care and energy independence and global warming.

In Pontiac and Dearborn and Hamtramck, they talk about all of that and about new investment, about the cars of the future, about jobs.

Faith in Obama.

"Just the fact that he was elected means things are going to change. Something is changing," said 41-year-old George Pogacich of Royal Oak.

Time was, Pogacich could support himself as a martial arts instructor and videographer. Now, with people struggling to pay bills, it's hard to find people willing to pay much, if anything, for either service.

But he still sees "a light at the end of the tunnel."

You'd forgive folks for being more skeptical in Michigan. Unemployment is nearing double digits. A decisive minority of U.S. senators unceremoniously turned their backs on auto jobs a month ago. And the state has seen the number of those in Michigan's signature industry of making cars, trucks and auto parts drop by at least 141,000 -- nearly half -- since George W. Bush's first inaugural, nearly eight years ago to the day.

Worry? There's lots of reasons why we should.

But at Mariners Inn, a homeless shelter and treatment facility in Detroit's Cass Corridor, chief operating officer David Sampson talks of a resident named Bufford Blakely: He volunteered for the Obama campaign. All fall, Sampson said, you'd see him walking around the shelter, shaking the few coins in his pocket joyfully.

"What is that you hear?" he would ask the other men.

"Sounds like change," they would answer.

And he would tell them, "Absolutely."

Blakely won't be in Washington on Tuesday, but folks at the shelter expect him in the front row when they sit down to watch the speech.
A way for the United States to gain chance for a do-over

Face it, Americans are skeptical at the least, cynical at the most about politics. And politicians. We don't cut them many breaks. We worry that they're too swayed by special interests, we caution them not to get too cocky. We threaten them with term limits. We talk about throwing the bums out.

Polling showed that voting in Democrats to replace Republicans as the majority in Congress didn't do much to help confidence in Congress. We wonder at all the spending and earmarks and scandal. About the politicians who gave the banks money to help juice the economy only to watch the banks sit on the cash.

So when people talk about faith in a politician, something in you wants to laugh it off as naive.

But faith is a funny thing.

Especially on Tuesday, Inauguration Day.

"With Inauguration Day, you can begin the world over," said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "We have not become so cynical as to throw in the towel."

It is a uniquely American tradition, this belief in rebirth with a change at the top every four or eight years -- one that might correspond to the continuity of the royal line in Britain or the divine faith that builds when white smoke streams from a pipe atop Vatican City's Sistine Chapel signaling the election of a new pope.

Expectations vary, of course.

Lincoln came to office with grave doubts hanging over him, seven states having left the union rather than be part of his America. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office smack in the middle of a bank panic, during the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan became president with the Iranian hostage crisis ending -- but still had economic turmoil at home and emboldened enemies abroad.

How deep is the faith in Obama? Well, he's made more than his share of campaign promises, and the list of areas of his concern seems almost endless: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Climate change. Health care. Guantánamo Bay. Immigration. Education. Foreclosures. Bank regulations. Joblessness. Jobs.

And yet, there's a certain flexibility to the expectations, an understanding that change takes time. Even in bad times.

"This guy is not the second coming of the Messiah, you know," said Ali Dagher, a Dearborn lawyer who is optimistic that Obama will move to revive manufacturing and Michigan with it.

His expectations, he said, are realistic.

Of Obama, he said: "He brings a sense of optimism I haven't seen in a long, long time."
A community organizer who brings a sense of calm

Last semester, Phil Gardner -- director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University and a lecturer on career decision-making -- watched as his students went from thinking the economic downturn would be short-lived to realizing it would linger.

Not a pleasant note to end a class on, but it was leavened with the students' hopes for the new president.

Now, says Gardner, it's up to Obama to "stop this panic."

That's another mission of faith. To calm.

And Obama can do calm. When concerns about his links to a Chicago pastor who had made anti-American remarks threatened to derail his campaign, he did calm. When his Republican rival suggested suspending the campaign to rush to Washington to deal with the economy, Obama did calm.

It's a big part of the ascent of this Hawaiian-born Harvard grad and onetime Chicago community organizer, a success built on the historical accident of the worst economic upheaval since the 1920s, an intensely unpopular presidency, a talent for rhetoric by turns spirited, soothing and sublime and his connection to the spirit, the activism and even the cash of a previously untapped and Internet-savvy pool of supporters.

"He sounds like he's got a good head on his shoulders," said Cassandra Stevens, 34, of Howell.

Every so often, Stevens takes her kids and goes back to visit her relatives in her hometown of Flint. She remembers what Flint used to be, when General Motors Corp. was big. Before, she says, Flint started to look deserted.

She works now at Wal-Mart and is doing fine for herself. Her husband works at a parts stamping plant, though, and its orders are sagging. He's a boss, but all the salaried folks are working the line now, what with cutbacks at the factory.

They have no plans to leave Michigan. They're waiting for the turnaround. The change.

"That's why we've stayed for so long," she said.

So Obama's got to carry their faith in him, too.
Michiganders counting on Obama to deliver the goods

There's a persuasive argument many Michiganders make that they've seen the worst the last couple of years -- that they're nearer to recovery than the rest of the nation. That there's nowhere but up.

Obama, they believe, is the way up. Fact is, a lot of them say that they know it.

At his first inaugural address, FDR said of the American people, "They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift, I take it."

That gift belongs to the former junior senator from Illinois now, the faith emanating from homeless shelters and auto plants, schoolrooms and Wal-Marts, church basements and pickup basketball courts.

They don't expect miracles.

Dennis Cowan, former head of the Oakland County Republican Party, sees that people want a break from partisanship and want to buy into the spirit of optimism now, but, he warns, whatever Obama does, it better work.

"Because if it doesn't," he asks, "what do we do then?"
It's hard to say why, but people see better days ahead

In the Downriver suburb of Brownstown Township ("where the future looks brighter," says the township Web site), it hasn't been easy for Maureen Burr. At 69, she's looking for work. Her pension has run out, she's recently divorced, there's not much money coming in. It's not much better for her daughter, who is staring at bankruptcy, and her son-in-law, who is out of a job.

She doesn't expect Obama to make everything right at once, doesn't expect him to find her work or pay her bills.

But she has faith that things will get better.

Asked what it is about him, Burr ponders the question. He's bright, certainly, she says. He can give a good speech.

"He's a good man," she says. "I've been impressed by him right from the beginning."

Funny thing, faith. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on what drives it.

Detroit's motto goes back to 1805, when fire destroyed much of the then-frontier city before statehood for Michigan, before Henry Ford, before the riots, before Motown, before the Renaissance Center, before Kwame Kilpatrick.

It is in Latin: Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus.

"We hope for better days."

"It will rise from the ashes."

In these parts, we know something about faith.


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