In the cover art for his album “Recovery,” Eminem sits on a couch in the middle of Detroit’s Hart Plaza, placidly reading as the towers of GM’s Renaissance Center loom behind him. It turns out Detroit’s breakthrough white rapper isn’t the only embattled dude with a taste for symbolism involving this giant plate-glass castle. This Labor Day, I watched as the RenCen played backdrop for another jumper of racial lines, President Barack Obama, who kicked off his election counteroffensive after a rough year in Washington and around the nation.

The event should have been a kind of homecoming. Detroit gave birth to the modern American labor movement, which in turn shaped the 20th-century Democratic Party. Former Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson launched their presidential drives in Detroit. Think about that. Each Democratic president in the 20 years that marked the high-water mark of American liberalism and the decades that witnessed the biggest middle class in human history, the civil rights movement and manned space travel, all started in Detroit.

That era didn’t last, of course. Black freedom didn’t sit well with a lot of whites in the North and South, leading them away from the Democrats, who also proved too willing to acquiesce as the economy was re-engineered to benefit the rich at everyone else’s expense. These days, Republicans are mopping up the unions’ remnants, fiscal inequality in the United States is at record levels and many Democrats are still working out whether they want to do anything about it.

Despite all that and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama did have something to celebrate on this occasion. Thanks to the U.S. bailout, the American automobile industry hasn’t crumbled to the ground. This was the victory that the RenCen setting aimed to recall, despite the fact that the RenCen is not an auto plant, as The Washington Post reported, but an office, hotel and shopping complex. The crowd of mostly union members assembled for Obama’s speech interjected “Four more years!” more than once. Yet the enthusiasm seemed tempered by a nagging sense that in the struggle to rebuild the U.S. economy Obama had won a few battles but might be losing the war and the sense that the fight might just be going out of the guy.

Teamsters president James P. Hoffa practically begged for some action. “The one thing about working people is we like a good fight,” Hoffa told the crowd. He himself is facing a challenge from Teamsters — a one of the largest labor unions in the world — who say he’s in love with management, so he didn’t stop there trying to cover his flanks with the martial rhetoric. “President Obama, this is your army.”

But the commander in chief wasn’t biting. After walking onstage and going down the list of his accomplishments — health care, auto bailout, middle-class tax cuts — Obama launched into the plan of action that ought to have rallied the troops around his standard.

“I’m going to propose ways to put America back to work,” Obama announced, “that both parties can agree to.”

Groans rose from the audience. A woman standing next to me in the crowd turned and said, “Here we go again.”

The speech carried on, and “Four more years!” came back, but there you had it. The people who had been Obama’s champions no longer trusted that he’d be theirs.

Turns out Eminem originally planned to release an album titled “Relapse 2” (“Re-Relapse”? “Threelapse”?), instead of “Recovery.” Then he changed his mind. It’s not so clear whether we can count on Obama to overcome his own lapses, even if he wins another term. That doesn’t mean giving up on him, but it does mean looking beyond the moment to the long run and building new movements, which show that people matter more than money. On my way to the rally, I passed a house on Detroit’s Clairmount Street with thistles rising high in the front yard and a faded “HOPE” poster in a window. We’ve been sticking with a losing game for a long time now. And as one of the unionists who spoke that day said, sometimes hanging on ain’t enough.

Joel Batterman can be reached at

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