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The Illinois senator seemed right at home in Flint, Mich.
And perhaps there was no better place for Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, to offer his message of hope and change than in the city that was home to the historic UAW GM sit-down strikes.
In an emotionally charged, 50-minute address to more than 1,000 supporters, Obama focused on how to restore America's competitiveness, well-suited for Flint, which was slammed with a seasonally adjusted April unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.
Grim economic news is nothing new to a city that has long suffered from the Bush administration's misguided trade policies, inattention to the nation"s infrastructure and lack of a national health care plan.
Those problems were among many on the minds of UAW members and retirees in the crowd when Obama delivered his June 16 speech to rousing applause and numerous standing ovations at Kettering University's Connie and Jim John Recreation Center, just north of Detroit.
Marking his fourth campaign stop in Michigan in little more than a month, Obama also garnered the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore at a raucous rally of 20,000 supporters in downtown Detroit's Joe Louis Arena later that night.
"Take it from me – elections matter," said Gore, adding that at 46 Obama has more than enough experience to be president.
"I remember when one prominent Republican wondered out loud whether the Democratic nominee, 'really is grown up enough to be president,' " Gore said. "Another used the phrase, 'naive and inexperienced.' Yet another said, 'the United States cannot afford to risk the future of the free world with inexperience and immaturity in the White House.'
"Who are they talking about?" Gore asked. "Every single one of those quotations came from the campaign of 1960, when the Republicans attacked John Fitzgerald Kennedy for allegedly lacking the age and experience necessary to be president."
Obama, invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said the "fierce urgency of now" was motivating his run. America's problems, he said, and especially America's children, need immediate attention.
"In Detroit and in my hometown in Chicago, children are growing up and by the age of 8, by the age of 7, even by the age of 6, you can see the cloud passing over their eyes," he said. "They've lost the hope in the future, in their capacity to determine their own destiny."
Meanwhile in Flint, at the podium in the engineering school's gymnasium with a "Change That Works For You" banner behind him, Obama said:
"There's a clear choice in this election. Instead of reaching for new horizons, George Bush has put us in a hole, and John McCain's policies will keep us there. We need to get out of that hole, climb out of that hole. I want to take us in a new and better direction. It's time for new policies that create the jobs and opportunities of the future, a competitiveness agenda built upon education and energy, innovation and infrastructure, fair trade and reform."
Obama encouraged voters to embrace the future, rather than fear it.
"I have no doubt that America can compete, and succeed, in the 21st century. And I know as well that more than anything else, success will depend not on our government, but on the dynamism, determination and innovation of the American people," he said as the enthusiastic crowd chanted his name.
"Here in Flint, it was the private sector that helped turn lumber into the wagons that sent this country west, that built the tanks that faced down fascism, and that turned out the automobiles that were the cornerstone of America's manufacturing boom. But at critical moments of transition like this one, success also depended on national leadership that moved the country forward with confidence and a common purpose," he added.
Obama called for national unity on economic policies and tax cuts to help the middle class, and he encouraged technological innovation as the key to U.S. economic strength in the 21st century.
"What excites me about Obama is the fact that he's even talking about issues important to working men and women, like health care, fair trade and workers' rights," said Brian Kosbar, UAW Local 1292 president. "John McCain will just be a continuation of George W. Bush's policies."
Bill Jordan, president of UAW Local 599, spelled out the problems Obama will inherit from years of Bush administration mismanagement. "This is one of the most devastated towns in the country," Jordan said. "We've lost thousands of jobs here, and we must save these manufacturing jobs by reforming existing trade laws to return jobs to the U.S. and prevent more from going overseas."
Obama's remarks on fair trade were particularly well-received by the crowd, who have seen thousands of well-paying, union jobs leave Michigan.
"I have said before, and will say again – I believe in free trade. ... But unlike George Bush and John McCain, I do not think that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. I don't think an agreement that allows South Korea to import hundreds of thousands of cars into the U.S., but continues to restrict U.S. car exports into South Korea to a few thousand, is a smart deal. I don't think that trade agreements without labor or environmental agreements are in our long-term interests."
In a sharp dig at the current administration's reluctance to address the auto industry's problems, Obama said, "And unlike George Bush, I won't wait until the sixth year of my presidency to sit down with automakers."
"We have a choice. We can continue the Bush status quo as Senator McCain wants to do ... or we can choose to rise together. This is our moment. This is our time to unite in common purpose, to make this century the next American century. Because when Americans come together, there is no destiny too difficult, or too distant for us to reach."
Berteen Ewles, president of UAW Local 1811, whose members include the custodians who set up and took down the Kettering University event, believes those at her local who previously supported Sen. Hillary Clinton will back Obama.
"What impresses me is we're going to have a president (who is) for the people who will put the middle class back on the map," she said. "He'll have our backs. If anybody can do this, he can."
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