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Trump’s term ends with half of his campaign promises unachieved
President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from Texas. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from Texas. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from Texas. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg January 19, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • About a quarter of campaign promises were fulfilled, about a quarter he compromised, and about half he did not achieve.

  • He didn’t build his wall. He did cut lots of regulations.

  • He did best when he could act alone through executive actions.

"Promises made, promises kept."

That’s what President Donald Trump told his supporters at rally after rally — in Greenville, N.C., Montoursville, Penn., Green Bay, Wisc., Des Moines, Iowa, and on and on, from coast to coast. It was a stock phrase in his pitch to hold the presidency.

By our count of his campaign promises, it was accurate about a quarter of the time.

Since the founding of PolitiFact in 2007, we’ve tracked how well presidents deliver on what they tell voters on the stump. Trump’s vows were sweeping: He said he would slash government regulation, build a wall with Mexico (and make Mexico pay for it), abolish Obamacare, rebuild manufacturing, and cut taxes for everyone. 

In all, we compared 102 commitments Trump made to voters during the 2016 campaign with the final, verifiable results. As he leaves office, the complete tally is now in.

Trump kept 25 promises, compromised on 23 and broke 54 of them.

We monitored many more promises by Obama — more than 500, and many were very granular. Such a shift makes the results harder to compare. Obama failed to deliver on some key points, including ending the war in Afghanistan and reducing health insurance premiums for the typical family. 

By the end of two terms, Obama scored better than Trump. He kept about half of his promises, with the rest about evenly divided between those that ended up in a compromise and those that went unachieved.

Trump was a very different president, not simply as Obama’s polar opposite on policy, but even more so in style.

The "key to the way I promote is bravado," Trump wrote in his 1987 book "The Art of the Deal." "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular." 

Trump’s promises were bold and helped him win the hearts and minds of 74 million voters in 2020. On some, he delivered. But many of the biggest ones — including a few pillars of his 2016 campaign — were beyond his reach.

The wall: Not built, not paid for by Mexico

From the moment Trump glided down an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, stopping the flow of illegal immigrants across the border with Mexico was the keystone of his campaign. And nothing spoke more to that goal than his promise to "build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall."

We rated that Promise Broken

The Trump administration has done work on over 400 miles of wall, but of that, only about 40 miles is brand new. The remainder replaces or strengthens barriers that already existed. The enhancement can be substantial, such as replacing low fencing easily crossed on foot with a 30-foot high metal barrier. 

Still, the wall is far from complete, and President-elect Joe Biden says construction will stop. 

Failed to repeal Obamacare

Trump also came up short on his commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare, the health care law known more formally as the Affordable Care Act. His plan died on the Senate floor in 2017 when three Republican senators voted "no" on a procedural step that would have cleared the way for passage of a replacement health care plan.

While the U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule on the law, the justices’ words during oral arguments hinted at a limited ruling that leaves much of the law intact. Meanwhile, 8.2 million people signed up for 2021 plans under the law, including 1.8 million new customers.

With Democrats in control of Congress and Biden committed to building on Obamacare, we rated this a Promise Broken.

Cut regulations but overpromised on jobs

Trump did better with reducing government regulation and cutting taxes.

Through an executive order, he made sure that for every new regulation, two would be cut. On deregulation, we rated that a Promise Kept

His promise to cut everyone’s taxes came in as a Compromise. The 2017 tax law did trim taxes for most Americans, but not all. And with key elements expiring in 2025, many middle-income households are on track to see their taxes rise from where they were before the new law. Similarly, his plan to cut the corporate tax rate clocked in as a Compromise. Republicans pushed the rate from 35% down to 21%, but Trump had wanted it to be 15%.

Trump campaigned on a platform of jobs and growth. Setting aside the economic turmoil from the coronavirus, he could rightly point to historically low unemployment for all Americans, regardless of ethnicity or gender. But even here, Trump over promised.

He said he would revive manufacturing jobs. They plateaued in 2019, and while the number had grown in his first two years, the increase was at roughly the same pace as under the last years of the Obama White House. We rated that a Promise Broken.

Trump said he would grow the economy by 4% a year. The high point was 2.9% in 2018. Another Promise Broken.

Other promises: trade, the military

Rejecting decades of Republican orthodoxy on trade, Trump said he would scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty that the Obama administration had crafted, and renegotiate NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. He came through on both.

Rebuilding the military was central to Trump’s presidential bid, and in terms of getting hundreds of billions more out of Congress, he was successful. But on the specific improvements he laid out in 2016, he made either modest headway, or none at all. The Army has the same number of soldiers as when he took office. The Marines now plan to have fewer battalions. The Navy is moving toward having 350 ships, although reaching that goal is a long way off. The Air Force almost has the 1,200 fighter aircraft Trump promised, but the catch is about a quarter of them need so much work, they aren’t ready for action.

The use of executive orders

Looking back at Trump’s promises of 2016, he faced two main obstacles — Congress and his own overreach. Securing votes, even when successful, led to compromises. And economic forces rarely cooperate with White House ambitions, especially ones as stratospheric as Trump’s.

Where Trump reliably did best was in areas that he controlled on his own. At the stroke of a pen he could pull the U.S out of trade talks or redirect agency priorities. He made effective use of executive actions. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries are notable examples.

But what one president can do with one signing event, the next president can undo.

His damaging final months

To one degree or another, Trump made headway on some central promises, said American University professor of government James Thurber. 

"Deregulation, tax reform, appointing conservative judges and Middle East peace all stand out," Thurber said.

Bert Rockman, professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University said until the coronavirus upended the economy, that was a clear win for Trump.

"Whether the growth was his doing alone is an open question, but that was his ace in the hole, and he probably would have won reelection if the pandemic hadn’t occurred," Rockman said.

But both Thurber and Rockman cautioned that history might not be kind to Trump. Thurber said Trump’s challenge of the election and his second impeachment "will overshadow his accomplishments."

Rockman extended that to Trump’s entire tenure.

"His major accomplishment has been the destruction of American governing institutions," Rockman said. "Some people might not care, but the people who study government and history will." 

READ MORE: The Biden Promise Tracker

READ MORE: The Obameter: Tracking the promise record of Barack Obama

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Our Sources

See links in article

U.S. Homeland Security Department, DHS and CBP Celebrate 400 Miles of New Border Wall System, Oct. 29, 2020

Zolan Kanno-Youngs, tweet, Sept. 29, 2020

Fierce Healthcare, More than 8.2M signed up on during open enrollment: CMS, Dec. 22, 2020

New York Times, Key Justices Signal Support for Affordable Care Act, Nov. 10, 2020

Email exchange, James Thurber, professor of government, American University, Jan. 19, 2020

Interview, Bert Rockman, professor emeritus, political science, Purdue University, jan 19, 2020


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