Why Presidents Should Break Campaign Promises

Once upon a time, way back in 2008, Barack Obama told the American public a lovely little story. Elect him president, he said, and health-care negotiations would "all be televised on C-Span." You know, for transparency's sake. So it was only natural that when Congress returned from Christmas break earlier this month and began to lay the groundwork for merging the House and Senate health-care bills, Jon Stewart plopped down in his Daily Show anchor's chair with a remote control in one hand, a giant bag of popcorn in the other, and a pair of 3-D glasses perched atop his schnoz. "Oh yeah!" Stewart shouted. "We're going to do it on motherf--king C-Span."

Stewart turned on the television. He tuned it to C-Span. Nothing doing. C-Span 2? Nada. What about C-Span Classic? Sorry. Not even "C-Span: English but with a Spanish Accent," it turned out, was broadcasting any negotiations. Stewart looked crestfallen. "What gives?" he whimpered.

Obama's first year in office ended last month, and despite all the chatter about "postpartisanship" that accompanied his election, American politics remains as petty and vituperative as it was under George W. Bush. But there's one thing, at least, that liberals and conservatives seem to agree on: that the president hasn't been particularly good at keeping his word. On the right, Fox News and World Net Daily maintain running tallies of Obama's "abandoned commitments." On the left, Salon gripes that while "politicians have always broken promises," they've "rarely" done it "so proudly and with such impunity." The new 2010 budget, which offends conservatives with its ballooning deficit and liberals with its freeze on domestic discretionary spending, is further fueling Obama's pants-on-fire problem and threatening to deepen the "deficit of trust" that he described in his first State of the Union address. The president is not who he said he was, both sides now seem to think. Beware.

But perhaps it's time to reconsider what presidential candidates mean when they "promise" something—and what we mean we say they've "broken their promises." No doubt about it: Obama has failed to fulfill some of his pledges since arriving in the White House. During the 2008 campaign, for example, he said he'd post all bills online for five days before signing them. But the first bill Obama passed as president—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—got no such vetting, nor did a subsequent string of nonemergency measures. The president also pledged to eliminate income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000, end no-bid contracts above $25,000, keep lobbyists out of his administration and reduce earmarks to 1994 levels. None of these things has happened. Even though Obama's promise-breaking is pretty much par for the presidential course, I tend to agree with Dave Sirota, one of Obama's harshest liberal critics, that the cynicism of saying "everyone does it" is corrosive and that we should hold the leader of the free world to a higher standard. That's why watchdog sites like Politifact and National Journal's Promise Audit need to keep doing what they're doing, and it's why voters need to keep reading them.

But thanks to a 1,440-minute news cycle that spits out a new "gotcha" story every 10 seconds or so, we seem to have forgotten a few common-sense facts. First, some campaign promises are stupid—unworkable, unwise pledges made by candidates who are either too naive to know it or too myopic to care. We should be relieved, not angered, when a chastened incumbent abandons them. The C-Span commitment belongs in this category. As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein has written, "if you open the negotiations to C-Span, the result isn't just that C-Span televises the negotiations. It's that the negotiations change ... What you'll get are kabuki negotiations in which legislative leaders make carefully planned statements about the awesomeness of the bill while staff works in a back room to haggle out whether, say, we should tax rich folks or expensive insurance plans." The process gets even more bloated; the underlying bill remains the same. Everyone agrees that transparency is good, but the C-Span plan wouldn't have created transparency. It would've created the illusion of transparency. The same goes for Obama's promise—since abandoned—to institute a universal health-care plan without an individual mandate: as well-meaning as it was, the proposal wouldn't have worked. A president shouldn't be forced to govern idiotically just because he campaigned that way.

Other promises seem perfectly sound at first, then become impractical when conditions change. Fox's John Stoessel has chided Obama for presiding over a trillion-dollar deficit increase after vowing as a candidate to cut more than he spends. But it was the unplanned, $787 billion stimulus bill—which even conservative economists said was necessary to stave off a second Great Depression—that generated the vast majority of that growth. Whether or not they agree with Obama's policies, Republicans who defended George W. Bush for ditching his pledge to preside over a humble foreign policy after September 11 should be able to sympathize with the need to shift gears in response to unforeseen events. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart often notes that the president has betrayed his vows to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and shutter Guantánamo before the end of his first year in office. But Obama's decision to extend the Iraq withdrawal horizon to 18 months (with the possibility that some troops would remain there even longer) was the result of careful consultation with his generals, and Gitmo hasn't closed yet because Congress won't allow it. Every president would like to keep all of his campaign promises. But new realities tend to interfere.

Then there are the "broken promises" that aren't really broken promises at all. Consider taxes. Conservatives argue that by increasing the cigarette tax by 159 percent, the president has violated his pledge that "no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase ... not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital-gains taxes, not any of your taxes." But in that speech Obama was referring specifically to his proposals for federal income or payroll taxes (which he hasn't raised a cent). At the time, the candidate's support for a cigarette excise tax—i.e., a tax that's based on goods you choose to purchase rather than your income level—was clear. And like it or not, the American people chose to elect him anyway. Deciding to follow through and raise the cigarette tax as president should count as a promise kept rather than a promise broken.

The bottom line is that only Beltway hatchet men and partisan activists should treat every detail of every policy proposal as a promise and then freak out when that "promise" doesn't become a reality. Should we keep tabs on a president's campaign pledges? Absolutely. Should we pressure him when he seems to abandon priorities we hold dear? Of course. But smart voters should also recognize that campaign promises aren't abstractions. They're practical political tools. Which is why it makes sense for presidents to break their promises and naive to expect them not to. They don't govern by fiat. They propose the strongest policies they can possibly hope for because they know they will end up negotiating with Congress and other stakeholders. In fact, the only way for a president to start from a good bargaining position is by proposing something bolder (such as the public option) than what he ultimately thinks he can get. "Breaking" those "promises" may be disappointing, but it isn't a betrayal. It's governing.