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Obama exaggerates his record on campaign promises

President Obama talked about his campaign promises. President Obama talked about his campaign promises.

President Obama talked about his campaign promises.

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan September 30, 2010

When President Barack Obama talked about what percentage of his campaign promises he's kept since taking office, we couldn't resist checking it out. The issue came up during a friendly interview Obama gave to Rolling Stone.

"You've passed more progressive legislation than any president since Lyndon Johnson," said one of Obama's interviewers. "Yet your base does not seem nearly as fired up as the opposition, and you don't seem to be getting the credit for those legislative victories. ... What do you say to those people who have developed a sense of frustration -- your base -- who feel that you need to fight harder?"

Obama said Democrats may be feeling pessimistic, but they should recognize what he has accomplished, specifically mentioning winding up the war in Iraq, expanding national service, revamping the student loan program, a new health care law and new financial regulations.

"I keep in my pocket a checklist of the promises I made during the campaign, and here I am, halfway through my first term, and we've probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we said we were going to do -- and by the way, I've got two years left to finish the rest of the list, at minimum," Obama said.

We asked the White House if we could get a copy of the list in Obama's pocket, but we didn't hear back. Fortunately for us, we keep our own list, so we're able to come up with our own calculation of Obama's kept promises.

We're pretty sure our list is much longer than the one in Obama's pocket. Our list has 506 promises. (That number has fluctuated very slightly since we unveiled it in 2009. We added a few promises we hadn't noticed when we first made the list, and we deleted a few unintentional duplicates.) As of this writing, Obama has kept 122 promises by our reckoning, or 24 percent.

But Obama probably only has the most important promises he made on the list in his pocket. We have a list in our pocket too, sort of. We selected 25 of Obama's promises as the most significant; we call them "PolitiFact's Top Promises." Obama has kept six of those, for a promise-kept percentage of 24 percent.

So has Obama kept 70 percent of his promises? Not by our reckoning. We believe he's kept 24 percent of his promises. But we recognize there is some subjectivity in deciding whether a promise is kept or not, and we don't know what's on his list. So we won't be rating his statement on the Truth-O-Meter.

We should also note that Obama is probably more generous in awarding himself a Promise Kept than we are. We can think of a few likely examples of this. For example, we rated his promise to close the revolving door on lobbyists as Promise Broken, because several appointees were given waivers to serve even though they had worked as lobbyists. Obama might argue that it's a Promise Kept because there are significantly fewer former lobbyists in his administration and on regulatory boards than in previous administrations.

Obama might also rate as Promise Kept several promises that we've rated Compromise, which means results fell short of his original promise but made significant progress in the direction of the original promise. That's how we rated his pledge to create a $500 tax credit for workers. Such a tax credit was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus. But the tax credit will expire at the end of 2010, and we don't know if it will be extended. Another example was Obama's promise to create a national health insurance exchange where people could buy insurance policies that meet minimum standards for coverage. We rated that promise a compromise because the landmark health law includes state-based exchanges, not a single national one. (Call us sticklers for detail, and we'll wear it as a badge of honor.)

Finally, there are few examples where Obama is simply in a position to know better than we are. We've rated his promise to end the use of torture as In the Works. Obama has issued policies directing an end to torture, but we are still monitoring this to see if any allegations of torture arise during his term. We'll be considering our rating again before the end of Obama's term.

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Obama exaggerates his record on campaign promises