Episode 69: Obama's Legacy on Race

So, here’s a question. When is it too early to assess a president’s legacy? How about two years before his term ends? 

Not for David Haskell, an editor at New York magazine, who polled 53 historians and asked them how they thought we’d remember President Obama 20 years from now.

On this week’s DecodeDC podcast, we talk with Haskell about his piece and what he learned. When asked what the president's legacy might be, the overwhelming response, according to those Haskell spoke with: Obama’s status as the first African-American president will be the defining aspect of his legacy. 

Yet they didn’t always agree on how race would affect the way we will remember Obama. Some pointed to the effect his race had on the opposition. These historians said what contemporary pundits won’t: that the rise of the Tea Party had something to do with Obama’s race. 

“Seeing a black family in the White House reminds us that this isn’t a white nation,” wrote historian Annette Gordon Reed. 

That simple fact, said the historians Haskell interviewed, riled up the opposition in a way that we wouldn’t have seen if he hadn’t been black.

In fact, when Haskell asked historians what they thought the most enduring image of Obama’s presidency would be, one recalled the moment during the 2009 State of the Union address when Republican Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!”

As for Obama’s biggest disappointment, Haskell said he mentioned it himself in Tuesday’s speech. He came into the office with a desire to unify, but even he admits he’s fallen short. 

Obama said he still believes we can overcome partisanship and gridlock -- but the historians overwhelmingly told Haskell he probably can’t -- and they don’t fault him for it.

They don’t believe Washington can be a more civil, less polarized place. In the words of historian Paul Kahn, the Obama presidency will be remembered as “...the moment at which gridlock became institutionalized.”

[Related: Will Obama be great? Wait and see.]

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Episode 68: Is Obama Great? Wait and See

For the Obama administration, it’s the beginning of the end: the fourth quarter of his presidency. That means political junkies have moved on to 2016, while historians, scholars and, undoubtedly, the president himself have turned their attention to Obama’s legacy.

Will he be known for Obamacare? For his Wall St. reforms? Or for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

And how will people view those actions -- as accomplishments or failures?

“These things are not fixed,” says Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University.

Presidential legacies shift and change over time, so Zelizer counsels that chief executives shouldn’t work too hard to shape how they’re viewed in the future. 

“The best they can do is just build a very good and vibrant record,” says Zelizer.

Take Lyndon Johnson, the subject of Zelizer’s new book “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society”. For decades after Johnson left office, says Zelizer, “the one thing anyone could remember about his presidency is Vietnam. It totally shaped how both liberals and conservatives spoke about him: a total disaster. But gradually there’s been more interest in his domestic accomplishments.”

These days LBJ’s legacy is defined as much for his work with the Civil Rights movement as it is for his commitment to keeping US forces in Vietnam. 

Most scholars think future discussions about the Obama presidency will consider health care reform, financial sector regulations, and the economic stimulus coming out of the Great Recession.

And most certainly, says Zelizer, “we’ll be thinking about race in American politics because that’s how the story will begin, with the first African American president.”

But a big part of how a president’s legacy develops is how politics unfold in the years afterward. 

“We won’t remember a lot of what he says, we won’t really remember a lot of what he does in these final two years but we will remember what happens when he leaves office.”

Bonus Episode: Violence and Muslims

We’ve all been watching events unfold in Paris with sinking horror.

Another terrorist attack, turning police, civilians, writers and satirists into blood and meat.

Another man-hunt broadcast on TV; mugshots of terrorists with Muslim names.

And now the chattering class is once again embroiled in the divisive argument we’ve witnessed for the last couple of decades; the argument over terrorism and Islam.

To one side it seems obvious that Muslims condone violence, that Islam is the problem, or part of it anyway. To the other, it’s blasphemy to even consider the idea, wrong to even ask the question, ‘is there something about Islam that leads its followers to violent tactics?’

The two sides are deeply entrenched and totally sure of their points of view -- with mostly anecdotes to back them up.

Well today we talked to a guy who does have data, a political
science professor at U.C. Berkeley named M. Steven Fish. His research lead to a book with this title: Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence.

Here’s a passage from the introduction:

This book provides no definitive answers and addresses only a portion of the large issues. But it does take on a substantial chunk of the big questions and it examines them using hard evidence.Unbiased by prejudice and unconstrained by political correctness, this book treats the assumptions about Muslims that rattle around public debate as hypotheses, rather than as unassailable truths or as unconscionable falsehoods. The book aims to shift the grounds of the debate from hot and wispy rhetoric to fact-finding and hypothesis testing.

It occurred to us that Fish’s work is exactly what we need right now: Data. Evidence.

Someone to decode these questions, and Steve Fish has answers.

No matter what you think now about Islam and terrorism, we guarantee that this conversation between DecodeDC host Andrea Seabrook and M. Steven Fish will change your mind -- or at least add nuance to your thinking.

Episode 67: The Bootstraps Myth

Picture this: two candidates take the stage for a debate. One steps to the podium and begins with a few biographical facts. He was born to a factory worker and a stay-at-home mom, and he went to public school. Before says a word about policy, the second candidate steps up to the mic. You find out he went to private boarding school, and his dad was a doctor.

Whether you realize it or not, in that moment, your brain has already taken some shortcuts to help you process what’s going on. Despite the fact that you don’t know anything about how either candidate feels about poverty, food stamps, schools, or taxes, there’s a good chance you’ve made some assumptions about the candidate from a working class-background.

This is where we get in trouble, says political scientist Meredith Sadin. She studies social class and voting behavior at U.C. Berkley, and she runs real-life experiments that look a lot like the scene you just pictured.

“These stories, which are sometimes very emotionally compelling, they are persuasive,” Sadin says. “But when you actually look at lawmaker’s roll call votes and behavior, they don’t really explain much at all.

On this week's podcast, we ask: why are voters so easily swayed by this narrative? Probably because it’s part of America's DNA. It’s the “bootstraps” myth, the one that says no matter where you come from or how far behind you start, you can work hard and rise up. 

But as compelling as the story is, the data show it’s not nearly as common as we’d like to believe.

Richard Reeves is an economist at the Brookings Institution. He predicts how much money people will make by crunching data on their parents-- race, income, education levels, et cetera. Reeves says if America was really the meritocracy we believe it to be, it would be a lot more difficult for him to predict where a kid would end up in life by studying their parents. After all, isn’t that what the earliest American settlers were trying to get away from back in Old World Europe? 

These days, ironically, children born into poverty in European countries like Denmark and France have a much better chance of rising up, bootstraps style, than poor kids here in the U.S. A child born to parents on the lowest rung of the economic ladder in America has a 40 percent chance of staying there. Just one in ten children born into families on that rung will end up in the top fifth of the U.S. income distribution. 

For certain groups, Reeves says, the chances are even more slim. More than half of children born to poor parents who are black, for example, will stay poor. The children who do move up the economic ladder don’t move very far. It’s also more likely for black families who do move out of poverty into the middle class to fall back down to the bottom of the ladder.

There are two lessons we learned from talking to experts about this. First, we have to ask ourselves if economic mobility is something we really want to make real in America. If it is, there’ a lot of work to be done implementing policies that help people climb out of poverty.

Second, when it comes to electing our representatives, we have to keep our emotions in check. A great bootstraps story might sound great, but we can’t let it sweep us off our feet. Instead, we have to look at how a lawmaker actually acts in office.

No one wants to give up on the American dream, but we have to keep it real. 

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Episode 66: Who told the biggest political whopper in 2014?

‘Tis the season for the year-end list.

And we thought it fitting that our contribution to this mainstay of holiday journalism be the best political lies of 2014 - from tiny truth-stretching fibs to all out, no-shame whoppers. 

To help us in our task, we turned to our friends at Politifact , the Pulitzer Prize- winning independent journalism Website that fact-checks statements from the White House, Congress, candidates, advocacy groups and pundits.

Politifact uses very complex, purpose-built technology to rate these statements, the Truth-O-Meter. It has a scale that runs from “true” to “pants on fire” – as in “ liar, liar...” The Truth-O-Meter’s needle also can point to half-true, mostly-true, mostly-false and false.

Politifact selected 10 finalists for 2014 lie of the year. Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of Politifact and she said some of the selections probably sound pretty familiar.

“Global warming is a hoax, ” was said by South Louisiana congressional candidate Lenar Whitney in a campaign video.

“It is just a strategy designed to give more power to the executive branch while increasing taxes in a progressive stream to regulate every aspect of American life," Whitney said in the video. “We’ve fact-checked global warming for years now,”  Politifact’s Holan said. “It’s not a hoax, it is real. Every time we look at it there is more evidence that says global warming is happening and its being caused by human activity.”

Another favorite this year, President Obama’s statement during a recent news conference in Australia that his position on immigration action through executive orders “hasn't changed.” As far as the editors at Politifact were concerned, the president was attempting to revise history.

“We went back and looked at all of the statements and his position had clearly changed” Holan said.  They gave this one a “false” rating.  Why not pants on fire? “The definition for false is the statement is not accurate, the definition for pants on fire is the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim, ” she explained.

Another immigration-related statement rises to the top of Politifact’s worst lies of 2014, this one involved ISIS or The Islamic State. The terrorist group has brutally killed thousands of people in Iraq and Syria and displaced hundreds of thousands in the region.

But here’s something it hasn’t done as far as the Politifact people can tell – attempted to cross the Mexico border into Texas. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, made this comment about the Border Patrol capturing ISIS fighters on Fox News in October.

The staff of Politafact checked with federal authorities, state authorities and ultimately rated this one a pants on fire statement. “It seems to be something he got from partisan Websites that were using anonymous sources” Holan said. (Note to saavy citizens: Beware the anonymous sources.)

If you want to hear about Politfact’s lie of the year…well, listen to the podcast or you can cheat and check out their website.

[Also on the podcast: A missed chance to limit police chokeholds]

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