Obama in Elkhart: Will he give hope a chance?

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama waves upon his arrival in South Bend, Ind., Monday, en route to talk about the economy in Elkhart, Ind.

They came bundled against the freezing weather, blankets, sleeping bags, and lawn chairs marking places in line as residents of Elkhart, Ind., waited for tickets to see President Obama on Monday.

Four hours before the Mr. Obama's scheduled town-hall meeting, the line stretched longer than a football field, the Elkhart Truth reported, and was growing quickly. Students at Concord High School had to move around the lines to get to their morning classes.

Behind the star power

People come to see presidents for all sorts of reasons: for the aura, the history, and sometimes for hope. In wintry Elkhart, nursing the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate (15.3 percent) in America's most manufacturing-dependent state, many must be looking for hope.

Realistically, there's not a lot a president can do to reverse Elkhart's fortunes. His $820 billion stimulus package won't fund all the local shovel-ready infrastructure programs that Mayor Dick Moore predicts would create more than 2,000 jobs. Obama can't bring back the recreational-vehicle industry on which the city's economy depends or make the unemployment lines go away.

A brighter tomorrow?

What he can do is inspire. Instead of the somber tone he's adopted since taking on the presidency, he can infuse his calls for responsibility with a sense of optimism about the future.

He's mouthed those words. But presidents like Reagan made many Americans feel it during a recession that was about as bleak as today's downturn. It's what Franklin Roosevelt did when things were far worse.

On his first Inauguration Day, when Roosevelt gave his "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech, Secret Service agent Edmund Starling recalled feeling "an injection of adrenalin" in the public's attitude. There would be seven more years of economic stagnation. But "so far as the spirit of the thing was concerned, the Depression ended right there," Mr. Starling wrote.

The people of Elkhart – and the rest of the nation – could benefit from a similar sense of certainty and hope about the future.

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