by three years of economic despair and hardship. “For younger workers who didn’t have a retirement option, it’s been horrible. A lot of older folks have died of heart attacks because of the stress. We hear that the economy is looking up and that there are jobs out there, but they are not decent jobs where you can support your families. And they’re not here in Decatur. That’s what we lost.”
Owens’ story underscores a larger problem facing Illinois and the heart of Obama’s campaign. As Owens recounts her story, the politician nods his head, his face etched with concern and compassion. When she finishes, Obama calmly takes the microphone and collects his thoughts before addressing the issue head-on. He conducts an informal poll of the 100 or so in the room, finding that half have either lost jobs or knows such a casualty. Despite President George W. Bush’s pledge to create millions of new jobs this year, Obama says many pay a fraction of those originally lost. “What I’m hearing everywhere I go is a middle class that is feeling squeezed because their jobs are moving overseas, and they are economically insecure,” he says. “We lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs and we have not been benefiting from the economic growth that has been taking place. Collectively, what we’re experiencing is erosion of the economic status. We have some people—a small slither of the economy—who have done better than they’ve ever done before; a middle class that is shrinking; and a greater and greater difficulty on the part of the working class … to get into the middle class. That is the story that we have to reverse.”
Throughout the room, heads nod in agreement. Obama seems to connect with a constituency that ranges from black churchgoers like Owens to white unionists threatened by the outsourcing of jobs to China, India, and Mexico. An older white man in the fourth row eyes Obama cautiously as the politician outlines his four-part program called “REAL U.S.A. Corporations Plan.” His platform is designed to counteract the despair that corporate outsourcing breeds by, among other things, getting the federal government to advocate more effectively on behalf of workers and communities in the World Trade Organization and making sure that tax codes give incentives to companies that keep jobs in America. When he finishes, the room erupts with applause.
“I could be wrong about him,” says Owens. “We won’t know until he gets into office, but I think he says what he means. And if he doesn’t, then he will have me to answer to. He will be held accountable.”
AGAINST THE ODDS
The next stop is East Alton, a city on the Mississippi River with a population just shy of 7,000. It’s roughly an hour and a half drive to East Alton, where Obama faces the machinist union, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know the man behind the campaign. Next month, he could possibly replace Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald, who is not seeking reelection. And an