Promises Kept and Broken, One Year Later

Promises Kept and Broken, One Year Later

Promises Kept and Broken, One Year Later

There are the things the president is doing that he said he would do. These actions can draw plenty of criticism, but not genuine shock. Then there are the things he is not doing which he said he would do.


Presidential elections are not usually marked by anniversaries. The political calendar turns on power, its seasons crisply measured by who is in charge. One hundred days since inauguration, four years until term limits come due–these are the conventional units of political time. It is evidently different, however, for this very different president.

Even as the results from actual, live campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey roll in, the political and media establishment is fixated on the anniversary of Obama’s election. The conversation is partly fueled by predictable commercialism, to be sure, as everyone from HBO to Obama’s former campaign manager are selling well-timed ruminations on 2008. However, it is also fitting, and even potentially constructive, to appraise the nascent Obama era by explicit campaign standards.

I do not mean trotting out false equivalencies between electioneering and governing. Speeches to joint sessions of Congress are not campaign rallies, nor should they be. Opposing legislators are not always competitors for the top job–even if they think otherwise. Yet most of the current grievances about Obama, from supporters and backlashers alike, can be understood as two variations on campaign themes.

There are the things the president is doing that he said he would do. These actions can draw plenty of criticism, but not genuine shock.

Then there are the things he is not doing which he said he would do. This is the area where there is leverage for the taking, and the inaction invites both critique and surprise, depending on the patience and faith of the observer.

Entertain this taxonomy, for the moment, and it is striking to see just how many grievances fall in the first camp. Consider how Democratic activists, professional progressives and many commentators knock Obama for his repeated investments in bipartisanship, despite meager returns.

“What [would] Candidate Obama think of President Obama,” asks Arianna Huffington, in her new contribution to the anniversary cannon, when the administration’s health care strategy delivers only “as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?”

But that is precisely what candidate Obama campaigned on–fighting partisanship and working with Republicans, even when the costs and disagreements piled up. We may dislike a preference for futile bipartisanship over substantive policy, but we cannot pretend candidate Obama was misleading on this score.

There is a similar dynamic with the president’s appointees. They were mostly plucked from the “centrist,” consensus-oriented Washington establishment that Obama cited for validation during the campaign. It was just one year plus two weeks ago, in the campaign homestretch, when Obama publicly stressed that Colin Powell, a supportive member of Bush’s war cabinet, “will have a role” in the administration. It may be counterproductive for a Democratic White House to tap Bush’s bench for defense, or to stack the Treasury with veterans from Goldman Sachs (which topped the list of corporate staff contributions to Obama’s presidential campaign). But those alliances were clearly enunciated in campaign season.

The Obama backlashers also deride the president for doing as he said, though with little disappointment, since they were never on board anyway. Take, for example, the current, intense effort to discredit Obama’s foreign policy-making process. Cheney and Limbaugh rail against the supposed “dithering on Afghanistan,” yet Obama’s campaign narrative always stressed his methodical temperament and measured judgment.

By contrast, focusing on the items that were actually pledged and left undone is more likely to impact the administration’s conduct, for both sympathizers and opponents alike. In the limited lexicon of cable news, this second category is often dubbed “broken promises.” That framework is bit too hasty and loaded, however, to accommodate the tension between last year’s campaign commitments and this year’s crises.

Some pledges are delayed, but not necessarily denied. Obama has not led with much action on gay rights, or climate change, or legal accountability for those accused of torture or financial crimes, to take a few progressive priorities. For some supporters, the wait is too long. The mood is captured on one fashionable T-shirt for sale at Marc Jacobs’ boutiques, which features an impassioned, polite plea in all caps over a grainy outline of Obama: “Dear Mr. President, You Promised, I Voted, Now Please Deliver!”

Beyond supporters, the public at large is now less confident that Obama can deliver in this tough environment. In a new anniversary survey, Gallup finds that the share of the nation that thinks the Obama administration will “be able” to achieve several key goals has dropped sharply: a twelve-point drop on winding down the Afghanistan war; down eighteen points on “improving” healthcare; and, in a blow to that promised bipartisanship, a staggering twenty-six-point fall on healing “political divisions in this country.” (About 54 percent of the public thought the administration could do that a year ago; it is now 28 percent.)

Then, of course, some of Obama’s unfulfilled pledges are not a matter of ability or time. They were simply broken.

The reasons range from basic expediency, as in the pledge to provide five days of public review for legislation before the president signs it into law, to strategy, as in the White House decision to nix Obama’s promise of televised healthcare deliberations; to an absence of consequences, since there are so few sources of sustained scrutiny for these dry issues. In fact, the GOP leadership has yet to seriously attempt oversight or consistent policy-driven criticism in this area. Meanwhile, the traditional media have ceded much of this ground to the backlashers in partisan conservative media. And paradoxically, one result of the conservative media’s overheated campaign against Obama is the concomitant marginalization of criticism that might otherwise be legitimate. For example, Fox News has waged a cartoonish, Russian-themed war on “czars,” playing up jingoism and personal smears. Yet the expanded use of executive appointees who are not confirmed by the Senate, or accountable to Congress, does raise genuine constitutional questions. (It also fits into the larger assessment of how completely Obama is “restoring the rule of law” as promised, since he still uses many of the czars, defense contractors, signing statements, military commissions and state secrets claims favored by his predecessor.) Sen. Russ Feingold recently convened hearings in this vein, but his attempt to engage the issue seriously and recruit colleagues has been crippled by the far louder, more unhinged version of the argument.

Of course, the next election “anniversary” falls on the midterm elections, when Republicans will have to decide whether they are running against Obama because he is doing much of what he promised, or because he has not done enough of what he promised.

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