A PolitiFact special report: Obama's first-term campaign promises
Despite a polarized nation and a largely dysfunctional Congress, President Barack Obama has fulfilled or made substantial progress on 73 percent of the 508 promises he made when he ran for president in 2008.
Those results come from PolitiFact's Obameter, an unprecedented four-year effort to rate the president's campaign promises. The ongoing project by the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking website reveals that Obama has achieved 47 percent of his promises, earning a rating of Promise Kept. Another 26 percent were partially fulfilled, earning a rating of Compromise.
Obama fared best in the areas of education and health care. He kept 54 percent of his education promises and 48 percent on health care. Most of those were muscled through Congress with the economic stimulus and health care law, which passed when Democrats controlled the House and Senate in the first half of Obama’s term. He also kept a promise to end the war in Iraq, an issue that dominated the 2008 campaign.
Still, Obama failed to keep 119 or nearly one-fourth of his promises, including many high-profile ones such as his pledges to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to create a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming and his vow to "bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda."
In other cases, the White House made political decisions to sacrifice goals during negotiations. At PolitiFact, we rate outcomes, not intentions, so failure to fulfill a promise earns a Promise Broken. When significant progress is made on a promise but doesn’t completely fulfill the goal, we assign a rating of Compromise. We’ve left a small number of promises In the Works or Stalled if action is still pending. We’ll continue our review of all the promises -- and new ones from the 2012 campaign -- during Obama’s second term.
Obama’s 508 promises, taken as a whole, reveal his vision for government, that it solve or improve almost any problem society faces. Obama promised everything from working with Russia to move nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert (Promise Broken) to conservation of a habitat for the Osceola turkey and the ruffled grouse (Promise Kept).
But Obama's government-centric approach often clashed with the view of Republicans who have controlled the House since the 2010 midterm election. Thwarted by Congress, Obama has had to rely largely on what he could do through regulation.
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In a partisan age, Obama benefited from partisanship. In 2009 and 2010 -- the years Democrats controlled both houses of Congress -- Obama and party leaders pushed through the economic stimulus and health care reform, which allowed him to keep dozens of promises.
His landmark health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, moved many promises to Promise Kept. The law laid out a vision of health coverage for every American, enacted via tax penalties and tax incentives, within the framework of the existing, for-profit health care system. Republican attempts to kill the law have failed, and it survived a Supreme Court challenge largely intact.
James Morone, a Brown University professor who studies presidential politics and health care, said the law is a rare legislative achievement on par with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
"So many things have to come together, and presidential leadership is absolutely essential. I don’t think Obama has yet gotten the full credit for this accomplishment that history will give him," he said.
The health care law alone fulfilled 19 promises, including pledges for tax credits for people who need health insurance, requirements for insurers to cover pre-existing conditions; and an expansion of Medicare drug coverage for seniors.
The stimulus bill, designed to kick-start the economy, was like a giant goodie bag packed with things Obama had promised.
In some cases, the government simply wrote a check. But often, it provided incentives to encourage private-sector investment or push state governments to take action locally.
It funded efforts to modernize the nation’s electricity grid through competitive grants to utility companies. It offered scholarships and loan forgiveness to medical school students if they were willing to serve as physicians in rural areas. It paid for educational contests to get children interested in math and science. It sent grants to states to improve water quality. And it gave money to American car companies to build electric vehicles and hybrids.
The emphasis on incentives was a favorite Obama approach, said Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a book that documented the widespread impact of the stimulus. The massive spending effort was "the purest distillation of ‘change we can believe in’ on the policy side," Grunwald said.
After Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, they promised to claw back unspent stimulus money. But it didn’t work. Republicans couldn’t get any of the stimulus money back.
The stimulus wasn't perfect. Republicans cited projects they said were frivolous or wasteful. Solyndra, a recipient of loan guarantees for clean energy, collapsed spectacularly after turmoil in the solar panel market. But on the whole, the stimulus remained relatively scandal-free. That’s because the stimulus was conducted with unprecedented transparency -- it had its own website listing every project -- and a multitude of inspectors general to investigate missteps.
"This was an Obama bill, and it was implemented in a very Obama way," Grunwald said.
Obama benefited from other laws passed when the Democrats had control. One of his first moves was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Act, named for an Alabama woman who pursued a pay discrimination case all the way to the Supreme Court. The new law made it easier for workers to pursue such claims. He kept promises to fully fund programs for veterans. And he signed a major overhaul of the financial system, including a consumer protection agency, in July 2010.
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Obama's failure to keep 119 promises was usually caused by congressional opposition or his own political calculations about what to pursue.
In some cases, Congress actively moved to block his efforts. Obama pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, but lawmakers passed legislation to prohibit spending on moving prisoners to the United States. PolitiFact rated the pledge Promise Broken.
In other cases, Congress killed his initiatives through inaction. The House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill to address climate change in 2009, but Senate Democrats didn’t take it up.
In still other cases, Obama didn’t push his own agenda. He failed to introduce comprehensive immigration reform, even though he specifically said he would do so in the first year. Promise Broken.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Congress has limited bandwidth.
"Was it that he really didn’t back it? No," Sabato said. "It was because he had to pick and choose, because Congress cannot consume too many things at once. It is just as slow moving as everybody accuses it of being."
On the whole, Sabato said, Obama kept or tried to keep most of his promises, and he added that research shows most politicians do try to keep their promises. What differs is how well they adapt to real-world circumstances to get their promises fulfilled.
In a few cases, for example, Obama jettisoned promises in pursuit of larger agreements. As he negotiated the health care law, he abandoned campaign promises to create a government-run health insurance program (called the public option) and let go of a pledge to allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
Obama’s most significant broken promise, though, was his pledge to usher in a new bipartisanship.
Republicans were in such lockstep against his major initiatives that Obama usually had to rely on thin Democratic majorities.
The stimulus passed with only a tiny number of Republican votes, and the final version of health reform with none. In 2011, Congress flirted with default as House Republicans refused to increase the federal debt ceiling, a legal requirement that allows the government to pay its bills. Another battle over the debt ceiling looms for 2013.
Obama found it hard to accomplish his goals and mend the partisan wounds, said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. The battle for the health care law, for example, was extremely divisive.
"I think the president was torn between his desire to de-escalate the partisanship on the one hand, and his real commitment to get some things done," said Galston.