How Many Promises Has Obama Kept?

U.President Barack Obama announces plans to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Like all politicians, Barack Obama made promises that varied from specific actions (like closing Guantánamo Bay) to vague asks (like pushing Congress to pass climate-change legislation) that fell short of a commitment. In the fourth quarter of his presidency, many of these benchmarks remain elusive, some because of an recalcitrant Congress and others because he reversed himself. There's nothing wrong with flip-flopping, per se. Franklin Roosevelt was called a chameleon in plaid. But with Obama announcing a delay on troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, it's worth looking back at what he wanted and what he got.

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Newsweek compiled a list of issues that will likely remain unresolved once Obama leaves office in 2017. Some are flat-out promises, while others are of the we'll-try-to-go-to-the-fair variety that a parent might offer.

Guantánamo Bay

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow through on that."

This was probably his most firm promise. During his first week in office, Obama signed an executive order calling for the closing of Gitmo by the end of the year. It still hasn't happened. Congress has mostly blocked efforts to transport Gitmo detainees to other countries for fear they'll get loose, and few members of Congress wanted to have them moved to their home state. The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization act at the end of 2014, making it easier for the Pentagon to move prisoners, and recently Democrats like Nancy Pelosi have increased calls to shut down the controversial prison.

But Democrats don't have the voting numbers or political capital to push legislation closing Gitmo through Congress amid budget fights, and they can't increase their numbers until the 2016 elections.


This promise was more complicated. Initially Obama promised to increase U.S. involvement in Afghanistan while ending the war in Iraq, but in his 2008 New Hampshire primary speech he went a step further:

"We will end this war in Iraq. We will bring our troops home. We will finish the jobwe will finish the job against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan."

As of Thursday morning the job is not finished. Although Obama has formally ended American troops' combat mission, he announced that troop withdrawals will be delayed beyond the end of 2016. American forces will stay on in an advisory and counterterrorism role, which means the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has yet to be be won.

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"I suspect that we will continue to evaluate this going forward, as will the next president," Obama announced from the White House. "And as conditions improve, we'll be in a position to make further adjustments."

Obama once said that like all wars, the war on terror must end, but whether or not this is a deliverable promise, the fact remains that there is little end in sight. Our ground troops are out of Iraq, but bombs are being dropped on ISIS.

Energy Independence

"I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East."

Most energy analysts don't think the U.S. will get there by 2018, 10 years after Obama made that promise. According to the Energy Department, it would only be likely to happen by 2019 if a massive hike in oil prices raised demand for domestic oil. We can't call this promise "broken" for a few more years, but thanks to the explosion in fracking and other new technologies, American oil production has boomed. It's not independence, but it's a lot closer than people thought. With prices so low, the growth in green energy isn't what it would be if prices were higher.

Climate Change Legislation

"A small portion of the receipts generated by auctioning allowances will be used to support the development of clean energy, invest in energy efficiency improvements, and help develop the next generation of biofuels and clean energy vehicles."

In 2008 Obama promised to sign cap and trade legislation that would use revenue from emissions taxes to reinvest in clean energy. Climate change legislation of this kind has died in Congress multiple times since he came into office, including when Democrats controlled both houses. To act on climate change, Obama has instead had to go through the executive branch and the EPA, where he's taken action on carbon dioxide emissions.

By most estimates, current climate efforts won't prevent a major sea level rise. Climate change is one area where neither the President's environmentalist supporters nor his critics think favorably of his performance, but there's no argument that he's failed to take action.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

"I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support."

Comprehensive immigration reform hasn't happened despite Obama's willingness to take out his pen and sign a bipartisan bill. When Obama blamed Congress for stonewalling him on immigration in 2012 he wasn't off base.

Still, Latino groups were irked that during Obama's first term, as he and a Democratic Congress passed health care reform, a huge stimulus and other items, immigration was pushed to the side. They've been assuaged a bit by executive action to defer deportations.

Gun Control Consensus

"I think we can provide common-sense approaches to the issue of illegal guns that are ending up on the streets. We can make sure that criminals don't have guns in their hands. We can make certain that those who are mentally deranged are not getting a hold of handguns. We can trace guns that have been used in crimes to unscrupulous gun dealers that may be selling to straw purchasers and dumping them on the streets."

Obviously, none of that has happened, although technically it was less of a promise than a vision. When Obama advocated a "common-sense" approach in the 2008 Philadelphia primary debate, he wasn't anticipating the politically divisive string of mass shootings that occurred during his presidency. The administration's strongest gun control legislation push after the Sandy Hook massacre didn't go anywhere.

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In a recent speech following the Umpqua Community College Massacre, Obama called on voters and citizens to do more to advocate for gun control provisions like background checks. His promises on the campaign trail were not specific, and his strategy as president has mostly been to use the bully pulpit.

Sick Days and Family Leave

"Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent."

He had the same message in his 2015 State of the Union address. On the presidential campaign trail, high-profile Republicans like Carly Fiorina continue to be opposed to calls from Democrats for family leave legislation. In the first Democratic debate, family leave was a theme trumpeted by Bernie Sanders, and increasing paid leave time is generally opposed by Republicans.

As Jeb Bush puts it, the GOP wants the government to think of people as "assets, not liabilities." If you think Republicans are going to help Obama pass legislation on family leave as they await the outcome of the election, think again.

Cracking Down on CEO Bonuses

"Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses."

Dodd-Frank contained measures requiring disclosure of executive salaries, but there hasn't been legislation strong enough to prevent CEOs from cashing out like they did after the Great Recession. Given that this issue is still being brought up by Bernie Sanders and congressional Democrats (members of the house cited Republicans' disinterest in seriously addressing CEO bonuses as a defense against criticism of Planned Parenthood executive salaries), it's safe to say that Main Street's retribution is far from happening.

Affordable Health Care With Universal Coverage

Obama promised both with varying degrees of specificity while campaigning for president. He delivered the Affordable Care Act which, along with the financial bailout, effectively spurred the rise of the Tea Party. Obama expended a massive amount of political capital on health care, but premiums for many of those who have the same coverage as they did in 2008 have gone up. He promised that "if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor." But since many insurance plans weren't up to snuff by the standards of the ACA, some people did lose their doctors.

The bottom line is that by some estimates, 90 percent of Americans now have health coverage. Overall, the rate of growth of health care costs has slowed dramatically. Making quality health care universal is an even larger battle than passing Obamacare.

Changing the Culture of Washington

In some ways this is the only one that matters. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote about a Washington culture that was hurting the political process, not so much because of the gulf between the nation's two ideologies but because of the vitriol of public debate and the influence of special interests. He chided Hillary Clinton for being part of Washington's old-school partisanship and repeatedly pointed to initiatives he led in the Illinois Senate (filming police interrogations among them) and the U.S. Senate (arms control) that garnered bipartisan support.

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Obama has learned the hard way that compromise is harder than ever right now. Funding from interest groups has risen, party control has been diminished, and gerrymandering is now so precise that few members of Congress have incentive to cut deals.

Jeb Bush has said that prior Republican presidents like Reagan and Bush 41 could not get elected by the modern GOP. If you think the country is more unified than it was in 2008, watch the next Republican primary debate.

Meanwhile, Obama and his administration continue to define themselves through comparisons to the previous president: citation of the Bush administration and the state of affairs when Obama took office are still the norm in press conferences.

His actual performance—taking out "what could have been"—is a combination of broken promises and fulfilled ones, often crashing on the shoals a recalcitrant GOP and Obama's own oversell as a transformational president. Some of his most noteworthy foreign policy accomplishments—the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership among them—have yet to bear fruit and can't be judged a success or failure until he leaves office.

One promise worth remembering: In 2008 Obama vowed to use actionable intelligence to take out Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, even without the permission of the host country. Hillary Clinton called that reckless, but she was sitting beside the president the night he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It's a reminder that when presidents can act alone, they get what they want. When they have to deal and parley, not so much.