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Promises Broken, Promises Kept

The path to the presidency is a long and hard grind, and a candidate makes a lot of promises along the way. Many are throwaway lines that have little chance of ever becoming policy. Everyone knows it, and hardly anybody cares. Not long after launching his presidential bid in 2007, for example, Barack Obama promised that, as president, he would deliver an annual “State of the World” speech, laying out his foreign-policy agenda. Obama has never given the speech. Few people have noticed.

But then there are promises like the one he made about closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center—promises that become central themes of the campaign. They’re repeated often enough, and they involve such a critical issue, that keeping or breaking them can partially define a presidency. And that’s the case with Guantanamo, which remains in operation. Having failed to distinguish himself from George W. Bush on this issue, it’s as if Obama resigned himself to embracing many of Bush’s draconian policies regarding the “war on terror” and civil liberties.

How has Obama done in keeping the rest of his promises?

His record is fairly impressive overall. The website PolitiFact tracks the promises made by politicians and assigns them one of five labels: promise kept, promise broken, compromise, stalled, and in the works. According to this formula, Obama has kept 174 promises, broken 63, compromised on 54, and stalled on 67. Another 148 are still in the works.

Many of these promises have to do with issues that are important to progressives. By that measure, Obama’s record in office is less inspiring. He kept or at least achieved a compromise on many of his key promises—most notably, healthcare reform. But he broke many of them as well.

There are plenty of reasons for the administration’s broken promises, the most persuasive being that the GOP has controlled the House since the start of 2011, and it has effectively controlled the Senate by filibustering nearly every piece of important legislation. And the administration can argue that there is value in putting an idea on the agenda, even if it doesn’t yet have the support to become law. A broken promise is better than no promise. Raising the issue creates some momentum in the right direction.

But whatever the explanations and rationalizations, Obama’s failures are deeply disappointing. His grandest promise of all was to bring “hope and change” to American politics, and any calculation of whether he has fulfilled that promise—and deserves a second term—must take account of his failures as well as his successes.

Here’s a rundown of the most important promises that Obama has broken, based on data collected by PolitiFact. They can be grouped into five categories.

Clean and open government

You might recall that the debate over healthcare reform was supposed to be broadcast live, on C-SPAN, “so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process,” as Obama said during his campaign. The idea was that the best way to build support for the “public option”—a government-run alternative to private insurance plans— was to debate its merits publicly. Both the C-SPAN broadcasts and the public option quietly died when the healthcare debate actually began. The president’s first spokesman, Robert Gibbs, later pooh-poohed the importance of the C-SPAN idea, saying that Obama never “intimated that every decision putting together a healthcare bill would be on public TV.”

Obama hadn’t done that, of course, but he had promised to create an extraordinarily open legislative process. He had also promised to push for the public option that most progressives favored. It’s at least plausible the two failures are connected.

Obama also promised to put an end to lobbyists working in the White House. Once in office, Obama did formally ban lobbyists. But his administration also set up a waiver and recusal process that allows some former lobbyists to serve in the administration. Only a handful of waivers have been granted, but “no means none,” as PolitiFact puts it, “and the concerns about waivers and recusals … have convinced us that this promise is not being kept in letter or in spirit.”

Progressive taxation

Obama has made and broken several promises that involve higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. The Bush tax cuts have not been repealed for couples making more than $250,000 and individuals making more than $200,000 per year, as promised. But Obama did receive concessions from Republicans (an extension of unemployment benefits and a reduced Social Security tax rate) in exchange for a two-year extension of the lower rates. That 2010 compromise involved another broken Obama promise. There has been no increase in taxes on investment income, which affect primarily the wealthy. Without Congressional intervention, all of these rates will expire later this year.

With gas prices nearing record levels, and oil companies making record-breaking profits, another of Obama’s broken promises is relevant. During the 2008 campaign, he promised to impose a new windfall tax on oil companies. The money would be distributed directly to American consumers—$500 to individuals and $1,000 to couples. Obama hasn’t mentioned this promise since the campaign ended.


The declining power of American labor unions—and the related rise in economic inequality—are among the most important stories of Obama’s first term. Those problems defy simple solutions, and obviously no single piece of legislation could solve them. But at least two of Obama’s promises, if fulfilled, would have helped stem the tide of bad news. The Employee Free Choice Act was designed to help unions win bargaining rights by granting them automatic recognition when 50 percent of workers signed a card supporting the union. (As it stands, there is a secret-ballot election once 30 percent of workers sign a card.) Obama also promised to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011.

The Employee Free Choice Act—a bill that Obama co-sponsored when he was a senator—nearly became law, but it finally fell victim to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The minimum wage increase never seemed to be a high priority for Obama and has never been seriously debated.

Immigration reform

Immigration reform is important to a key Democratic constituency—Latino voters—and it has also been one of Obama’s highest priorities, at least rhetorically. And until 2010 election, when Democrats lost control of the House, there appeared to be sufficient votes to get something done. But very little has, in fact, been done.

On the campaign trail, Obama had promised that passing comprehensive immigration reform would be a priority of his first year in office. His vision of reform included new security measures on the border, but it also included creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. He followed through, primarily, by delivering speeches—not by actually putting his weight behind a bill in Congress. Meantime, the administration sought to inoculate itself from right-wing attacks, and gain leverage for reform, by deporting a record number of illegal immigrants.

In retrospect, Obama’s promise to pass immigration reform in the first year was a sound plan. But the strategy that the administration actually pursued—building momentum with speeches while trying to appease the GOP with a ramped-up deportation policy—went down in flames in the election of 2010. Republicans have little incentive or inclination to compromise with Obama on this issue, and the prospect for serious immigration reform is now as distant as ever.

The environment

Obama made dozens of promises relating the environment on the campaign trail, so it’s only fair to note that there is a substantial amount of good news in this category. He has increased funding for national parks and forests and for sustainable agriculture; designated stimulus funds for projects that will advance climate change research; invested billions of dollars in the green-energy sector; and pushed the Department of Energy to update the nation’s efficiency standards, among many other successes.

On the other hand, there are significant broken promises. Obama hasn’t restored Superfund programs, which make polluters pay for their messes; hasn’t implemented an annual “state of our energy future” address, as promised; and has failed to push through cap-and-trade legislation, which would reduce carbon pollution by imposing a limit on the amount of carbon that any individual company can emit.

Polluting beyond that point would require the company to buy permits from the government, or from other companies. Obama promised to use the revenue raised from this program to fund various conservation and clean-energy programs. That might have been possible as late as 2010, but cap-and-trade is a dead idea so long as the GOP controls either branch of Congress.

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Theo Anderson

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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