Hope and Fear for the 44th

By Beacon Staff

On Jan. 20, change came to Washington. Americans – nearly 2 million, by one estimate – converged on the National Mall, crammed as far as the eye could see, to witness Barack Obama become the nation’s 44th president.

Supporters wept, cheered and sang. But somber undertones pervaded the celebration. President Obama himself alluded early and often in his speech to the myriad national problems in need of a solution: “Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.”

With the long campaign relegated to recent history, amid bailouts and housing busts, two wars and tumbling stocks, Americans are left wondering, “What now?”

The Flathead Beacon interviewed residents throughout the valley to identify their greatest hopes and fears for what Obama might accomplish during his time as president. Their answers do not represent any kind of scientific sample – they come from a cross-section of people who shared their thoughts on the phone, outside of college classrooms and on downtown street corners. But their responses indicate the optimism, tempered by wariness, so many Americans across the country feel at the dawn of the Obama presidency.

Private Sector

Like most companies, Semitool Inc. is already facing challenges borne of the sagging economy, recently cutting staff because of lagging customer orders. Steven Thompson fears the new administration may add to the list of obstacles.

“We see all the money that’s being spent right now,” he said, “and eventually that has to come from taxpayers, and businesses are usually some of the highest taxed.”

Also, Thompson said the government is instituting new controls in response to scandals like Enron. One such new regulation has already cost Semitool millions of dollars every year, he said – expenses that make it even harder to compete in a global economy.

Jon Sonju echoed some of Thompson’s concerns. As part of Sonju Industrial Inc., which manufactures parts for U.S. missiles and fighter jets, and as a Republican state representative, Sonju questions what happens if bailouts don’t work. “It’s not the million dollar question; it’s the trillion dollar question,” he said.

“There’s only two ways for the government to generate money: to raise fees or raise taxes,” he adds.

Not all greet the coming stimulus with concern. At the Flathead Building Association, stimulus dollars are seen as a possible revitalization for the tanking housing industry.

“I would hope they would put housing as a top priority in any discussion of a stimulus package,” Executive Director Katie Chamberlain said. “I think it would trickle down in numerous ways and, I think, stimulate the economy in a big way.”

Meanwhile, the banking industry is already adapting to increased regulation – something Bob Schneider, president of First Interstate Bank, sees continuing.

“American lenders today have slammed on the brakes and gone through the windshield,” he told a crowd at last week’s Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon. National loan standards have tightened as banks insist on clients with strong credit histories and substantial down payments. Kalispell’s banks will see some of those changes as well, but Schneider says they all have more than enough money on hand to make loans.

At Plum Creek, another company already hit hard by the recession, company officials are encouraged by Obama’s emphasis on lessening the nation’s dependence on oil.

“We’re pleased that the administration will focus on the development and use of alternative energy, especially renewable/green energy, and we are excited about the potential use of wood for energy,” Kathy Budinick, communications director, said.

Public Sector

For the Flathead National Forest, a new president is akin to hiring a new chief executive officer. As a result, Denise Germann, public affairs officer with the FNF, said any new administration brings “excitement and anxiety at the same time.”

Funding from the proposed national stimulus package could jumpstart long-delayed maintenance improvements at this forest and others. Last year, after Congress allocated money for road updates, forest service officials estimated there was a $10 billion nationwide pileup of road maintenance needs – about $50 million of which was at FNF.

“From the president and his administration, we’re hearing the stimulus bill could help with deferred maintenance – roads, facilities, campgrounds,” Germann said. “That’s exciting for us and hopefully the public, too.”

Others are also excited at the possibility of stimulus funding. In the Flathead, officials have penned wish lists that include funding for projects like county road paving, Whitefish’s proposed emergency services center, Columbia Falls’ $3.9-million wastewater treatment plant and a sewer system in the ever-growing north portion of Kalispell.

In Tuesday’s speech, President Obama said America’s “schools fail too many,” and promised reform.

Here, at Kalispell School District 5, Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn said he’s proud of what local schools accomplish, especially in the face of one particular challenge: “One of my hopes is that the federal government recognizes the costs of the mandates they place on the schools and funds them appropriately.”

For example, areas like special education are under funded, Zorn said, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tabs for what the federal government won’t cover. And echoing criticism common to President George W. Bush’s signature education program, Zorn does not believe “No Child Left Behind” adequately accounts for important differences between rural and urban schools.

But he realizes increased federal funding often comes with increased federal regulation, and added one more wish to his list: “I hope they understand that education is best dealt with by the state, where we understand our situation much better than someone far away,” he said.

On the Streets

Not surprisingly, the economy topped the list of concerns from those the Beacon interviewed around Kalispell. Flathead County has been hit hard by the recession. The area’s economic strengths – manufacturing, wood products, tourism, home construction – are all vulnerable to the recent global downturn. The unemployment rate here ranks among the highest in the state. But most citizens remained divided on whether bailouts and stimulus packages are the solution.

“I don’t want to see people lose their jobs in, say, the auto industry in Michigan,” Amanda Zimmel, 26, said. “But at the same time, it’s a lot of money, and nobody’s bailing out my boyfriend who’s a subcontractor here.”

Others worried that federal spending would turn “the dollar into Monopoly money” or “bankrupt the country.” And a group standing outside the Flathead Job Service had a simple, but urgent take on the plans: “Anything that gets us work,” one said.

There were other concerns as well. Gun control. Healthcare. Education. Military defense. Gas prices. Wolves.

Amanda Dennison, a 23-year-old certified nurse assistant and Flathead Valley Community College nursing student, said she hoped for healthcare reform. But unlike many other local residents who championed universal healthcare, Dennison said she feels the problems lie with insurance companies.

“I guess it’s a fear and a hope,” she said. “It needs work, but if they socialize it the result will be an absolute nightmare.”

One man, who declined to be named, said he had bought several firearms in preparation for the new president and suggested that the Obama administration “stay out of the wolves mess.”

Many locals, though, had more encouraging views of the country’s new leader. After a campaign where people were asked to hope and answer, “Yes, we can,” it appears many here, at least, are giving Obama the benefit of the doubt. None envied the job he inherits.

“One of my biggest fears is that people in general have too high expectations for this administration,” Marisa Wininger, 19, said. “The problems we have right now have been developing for a long time, and are not going to get fixed tomorrow.”

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