President Obama gave a lovely valedictory last night in Chicago. No direct mention of Trump. No sour grapes. No real news. Just a classy guy going out with class under circumstances that are not what he would have hoped. He called for unity to face the challenges of the present and future.
He did claim that many things have gone well over the past eight years, and I mostly agree. The righties at Fox do not agree and I’ll give you a taste of that bile at the bottom.
He organized the first, relatively substantive half around what he called three threats to democracy. The first:
There have been moments throughout our history that threatened our solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.
In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.
After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.
Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. …
The third of Obama’s “threats to democracy” was my favorite, or maybe my obsession, and it was the threat represented by the fact-free zone into which we seem to be descending, where selective perception and confirmation bias, exacerbated by new media environment, enable people to avoid testing their biases. Here’s a taste of Obama’s riff on that:
Regardless of the station we occupy, we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.
Isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”
The overall speech was upbeat, encouraging us all to keep trying to make the nation what the preamble to the Constitution called “a more perfect Union.”
The speech ran well over the half-hour the networks had scheduled for it. The second half included an almost tearful tribute to Obama’s wife, Michele, and to his loyal veep Joe Biden. And yes, over the course of it, he cited a lot of evidence that he believes things got better during the Obama years. For example, this passage:
The good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.
The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.
Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.
Personally, I agree with him about most of those numbers and trends, even though we all know that there many ways of measuring progress in each of those areas. Which leads me to the opposing view that I promised at the top.
While the audience was still applauding in Chicago, Fox went straight to Sean Hannity, who led off his broadcast with a truly staggering display of statistical dishonesty. Maybe many of Hannity’s numbers can be defended on a technical basis, but none of them can be defended as remotely honest if by “honest” we mean intended to shed light and not just heat and bile. It was such a staggering display that I transcribed a bunch of it, thus:
Welcome to Hannity. The Obama nightmare is finally coming to an end. President Obama just finished giving his farewell address in his hometown of Chicago and and he is already trying to rewrite the history books to try and hide the truth about his failed presidency.
Tonight we will explain what President Obama does not want you to know about the last eight years and how President-elect Trump now has the opportunity to fix the mess he’s inheriting. And that’s tonight’s opening monologue. …
“All right, as you were just watching, President Obama spent time tonight boasting about the economy. Well facts, they paint a much different picture. Now what is exactly true is this: He oversaw the precipitous decline of the American economy. That’s a fact.
“Now here’s why. Under President Obama we have seen the lowest labor participation rate since the 1970s. 95 million of your fellow Americans are out of the labor force. He didn’t mention that tonight. It’s been the worst recovery since the 1940s. The lowest home ownership rate in 51 years. Over 11 million more Americans are on food stamps since he became president. Over 43 million now living in poverty. One in five families without someone in the labor force, not one person.”
Let’s pause for a little dissection. They say there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Hannity is committed to torturing numbers until they’ll confess to anything. If he was a fan of our beleaguered Minnesota Timberwolves who are currently tied for 13th (out of 15) in their conference, he could find numbers that would convince you they were leading the NBA.
Obama took office when the U.S. economy he inherited from George W. Bush (a name Hannity managed to not mention during his diatribe) was in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was 9.3 percent. The most recent rate is 4.9 percent. That’s a pretty steep drop. A rate below 5 percent is what economists call “full employment.”
Of course it’s true that the unemployment rate doesn’t measure so-called “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for a job. And the rate of “discouraged workers” has risen steadily during the Obama years. So, if you want to make Obama look bad, you ignore the unemployment rate (Hannity never mentioned it) and cite the rising number of discouraged workers. It’s the opposite of honest. It’s pure bias.
If the difference between the two rates is too hard for Hannity to grasp, he might just like to know that during the Obama years, the economy added 10.7 million jobs. So, obviously, more formerly unemployed workers have gotten jobs during the Obama years than have gotten discouraged. Don’t tell Sean. His head might explode.
Here are a few other things that have happened during the Obama years, as of the end of the third quarter of this year and as tracked by the “Obama’s Numbers” project of “FactCheck.org. In you don’t click through, they include: Job openings, up 112 percent. Median household income, up 2 percent (that’s not a great number but still too good for Hannity to use it). The number of Americans without health insurance, down 16.5 percent. (Hannity actually did a big number on how badly the health insurance picture has done under the Affordable Care Act, but he didn’t mention the all-time low uninsured rate. This is what lying with statistics looks like.)
Yes, the poverty rate has crept up by 0.3 percent, and that’s not good. But it’s a lot smaller change than it sounded like when Hannity said “over 43 million now living in poverty.” Stock market investors did incredibly well during the Obama years (S&P up 167 percent!) and you might think Hannity would consider that a great thing, but not if it gets in the way of awfulizing the Obama years. And he awfulized for several more paragraphs, to similar effect. After murdering a few more statistics, Hannity ended with this:
So there’s no doubt that President Obama’s legacy has damaged the country. But the good news is that we have a new president. Ten days from today, President Donald Trump takes office. He has promised to clean up this mess and he has a very clear plan to do it including, creating millions of new jobs, lowering taxes, reforming the tax code …
Hannity eventually handed off to his buddy Laura Ingraham, and they cracked each other up talking about how Obama misted up when paying tribute to his wife, but I couldn’t tell whether this was because men aren’t supposed to cry at all or because they thought he looked effeminate when he dabbed his eye with a tissue. Ingraham said she’d never seen a man do that. And that’s journalism.