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Obama's Years: Road Trip Kansas

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we have a sampling today of a cross-country trip. My colleague Steve Inskeep traveled much of this nation talking with voters about the past eight years, the eight years of President Obama's administration. Obama's Years is now an hour-long special program that's being heard on many NPR stations. And we're playing some here on MORNING EDITION. Steve is with me. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So how'd you pick your route here?

INSKEEP: We picked Obama's speeches from past years, from Denver, Colo., all the way to Philadelphia.

GREENE: Denver, where he gave his big convention speech in 2008.

INSKEEP: In 2008 - yeah, absolutely. These are mostly older speeches. And then we just went from the location of one speech to another talking with about anybody we could find there about how their lives have changed. For example - and we're going to play an example here - one of the speeches was in Kansas where Obama spoke about the middle class. And then we talked with people in Kansas about the middle class. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: What's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.

INSKEEP: Five years later, we arrived.

Thanks very much.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You bet.

INSKEEP: We rented a car. We drove east to Wichita, the highway cut ruler straight across the plains. Some of our interviews were planned, but many were unfiltered - pure chance.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, do you - what kind of food do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I don't care.

INSKEEP: Like the moment we started looking for a restaurant and spotted a small downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

INSKEEP: It was an old railroad stop, Augusta, Kan. We didn't realize until later that it was a town where Obama's grandmother once lived. On a main street of red bricks, we drove past the old theater. We stopped in for lunch at a restaurant called Sugar Shane's. The few customers that day included Joe Garst (ph).

What is it you're eating there that I'm keeping you from...

JOE GARST: That's an open-face meatloaf sandwich, and it's awesome (laughter).

INSKEEP: Joe Garst wore a beard and a baseball cap. He said he'd worked 44 years for a Kansas aircraft maker. He left Beechcraft during the Great Recession.

People in manufacturing, you got to ask - did you retire when you wanted to retire?

GARST: Actually, I went at 62. They were going to lay off my two bottom guys. And so I retired to save their job. And it saved their job for a year anyway before they laid them off (laughter).

INSKEEP: His former company made private planes. They're an emblem of excess to many people. But to Joe Garst, a jet was a job, which he felt President Obama did not support. Obama once called auto executives tone deaf for flying corporate jets while seeking bailout money.

GARST: And he'd give them all grief when they flew their airplanes from Detroit to Washington, D.C., and that's when it started. But he would take a trip on his airplane taking pictures of all the - all of the sites there. And you think - well, that's kind of a double standard (laughter).

INSKEEP: So how do you think the country has changed in the last eight years?

GARST: Well, it's not for the better as far as I see it. There may be more people working, but, you know, they're not having the higher paying jobs.

INSKEEP: So that's Joe Garst, David, one of the people in our documentary. Now manufacturing, what he was talking about there, that great source of middle-class jobs, has recovered since the Great Recession. But the job levels are not what they used to be.

GREENE: So that's what Joe is feeling. But he mentioned to you there that there are people working. Jobs numbers are up. So where are people working in this country?

INSKEEP: Well, one place is service jobs, which don't necessarily pay as well. We found another partial answer, though, in Kansas, on the plains there. Obama has promoted, for years, renewable energy as a source of jobs. And we did find evidence of that. There are wind farms all over Kansas. They actually produce a meaningful amount of electricity, and they employ a lot of people.

GREENE: One of the big themes during these eight years, Steve, it seems to be this question of the middle class and getting into the middle class. Did you hear people sort of talking about the middle class as a sort of impossible dream?

GREENE: There were many people who were struggling to stay in or to get in, and they include people with a problem faced by millions in this country. We met the family of Nubia (ph) and Wilibaldo Estevez (ph). They are both from Mexico. She is a U.S. citizen. He is not. Now, as we walked in, their kids were fascinated by our producer Claudina Bade (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What's that?

CLAUDINA BADE, BYLINE: It's a microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So you can actually talk in there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, you just did.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You can?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You just did.

NUBIA ESTEVEZ: Mami, it's a microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Wow.

INSKEEP: Maybe we could sit down and chat for a few minutes.

N. ESTEVEZ: Yes, for sure, yes. This is my husband. That's my daughter. That little girl is my daughter.

INSKEEP: And how long have you guys been together?

N. ESTEVEZ: Eight years, going on nine.

N. ESTEVEZ: OK. And how long have you been in the United States?

WILIBALDO ESTEVEZ: A little bit more than 13 years.

INSKEEP: So you came when you were a teenager then.

W. ESTEVEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: How old...

W. ESTEVEZ: When I was 17. I came in - illegal, you know. Basically, I swam the Rio Grande, tried to cross the border.

INSKEEP: You actually swam the Rio Grande?

W. ESTEVEZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: When President Obama was elected, the Estevez family hoped for a new immigration law. They wanted a path to citizenship. Obama did not try for that at first, pushing Congress for health reform instead. The president finally acted on his own in 2014, and the family celebrated - briefly.

N. ESTEVEZ: Definitely would have helped us a lot. As a family person, there was a few announcements that he made, like, for, like, DAPA, for the deferred action for parents...

N. ESTEVEZ: Yeah.

N. ESTEVEZ: ...Of...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

N. ESTEVEZ: ...U.S. citizen, that was a big relief.

INSKEEP: Until it was blocked in court.

Do you ever run into anybody who says - you're here without permission, you should go back?

W. ESTEVEZ: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes, yeah.

INSKEEP: What do you say to them?

W. ESTEVEZ: I just don't listen to them, you know, because I'm out here just for work and for my family and trying to live my life.

INSKEEP: When you get paid for your construction work, does somebody pay you in cash? Or do they give you...

W. ESTEVEZ: No, in check.

INSKEEP: So you pay taxes?

W. ESTEVEZ: Mm-hm, federal. We don't have - we don't...

N. ESTEVEZ: But we don't get the child earned-income credit.

INSKEEP: OK.

N. ESTEVEZ: So...

W. ESTEVEZ: There just want out money, you know (laughter). But we do what we supposed to do, you know - what we got to do - pay our taxes.

INSKEEP: Wilibaldo says he's declared himself to the government. He received a taxpayer ID number. And with his wife's help, he filled out papers seeking legal status.

N. ESTEVEZ: They just sent me a receipt that they received our money. Where's the paper? Where did you put the - I'll get it. Six hundred and seventy.

INSKEEP: Six hundred and seventy dollars...

N. ESTEVEZ: For a provisional unlawful presence waiver.

INSKEEP: So they're still seeking legal status for him. There is a process, but it's a longshot. And he'd actually have to leave the country and risk not being able to come back.

I want to mention, David, as part of this documentary, we talk with citizens who are deeply concerned about people coming here illegally, citizens who think their tax dollars are helping to pay for their benefits. Here's a guy who says he's paying taxes, and he sounds like any taxpayer, feeling that he gets no benefit.

GREENE: So interesting. It sounds like a great trip. I know you're working with a great team of our colleagues.

INSKEEP: Absolutely.

GREENE: They've put together a program. It's called Obama's Years. It's on many NPR stations and also at npr.org and on the NPR Politics podcast. I'm with my colleague Steve Inskeep. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.