President Barack Obama ends his first year in office with his to-do list still long and his unfulfilled campaign promises stacked high.
From winding down the war in Iraq to limiting lobbyists, Obama has made some progress. But the president has faced political reality and accepted — sometimes grudgingly — compromises that leave him exposed to criticism. Promises that have proven difficult include pledges not to raise taxes, to curb earmarks and to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba by the end of his first year.
“We are moving systematically to bring about change, but change is hard,” Obama told a town hall crowd in California. “Change doesn’t happen overnight.”
That was in March.
During his two-year campaign, Obama thrilled massive crowds with soaring speeches, often railing against an Iraq war that now is seldom mentioned. His presidential comments now are often sober updates on issues like terrorism and the economy, a top priority now that emerged as a major issue only in the campaign’s final weeks.
Obama’s campaign ambition has been diluted with a pragmatism that has been the hallmark of Year One — without much of the progress he had hoped.
A look at some of the promises:
THE ECONOMY, TAXES AND DEFICITS
Obama inherited an economy in severe distress that has since shown marked improvement. With the crisis developing so close to last year’s election, it wasn’t the focus of his earlier campaign promises. But Obama managed to craft his main anti-recession measure to address one of the top political commitments.
He campaigned on a pledge to provide a $1,000 tax credit to 95 percent of all working families, and almost delivered.
The $787 billion stimulus bill included an $800 tax credit for couples making up to $150,000, and a declining credit for those making up to $190,000. The Tax Policy Center estimates that 90 percent of taxpayers qualified for a tax cut under the stimulus package.
In a Dover, N.H., campaign stop, Obama pledged that “no family making less than $250,000 will see their taxes increase — not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”
True, unless you’re a smoker.
Obama, himself an occasional smoker, signed into law a 159 percent increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes. Other tobacco products were hit with similar or much steeper increases to help pay for a children’s health initiative, enabling him to keep another promise to make sure all kids have health insurance.
Obama also promised to cut the federal budget deficit by more than half in his first term. That now appears unlikely, given the spending on the stimulus and the billions of dollars spent on bank and auto company bailouts. The 2009 federal budget deficit hit a record $1.42 trillion, and the red ink in the first two months of fiscal 2010 was nearly 6 percent higher than the same period in 2009.
As a candidate, Obama touted his early opposition to the Iraq war and pledged to pull all U.S. combat troops out within 16 months. As president, he pushed that deadline back two months, to August 2010.
Even then, he will leave 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel in Iraq through 2011 to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces, and to help in counterterrorism missions.
As a candidate, he vowed to prosecute the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, arguing that Iraq had distracted the U.S. from its anti-terror priorities. By the end of his first year, he had retooled the Afghan war strategy, replaced the U.S. commander there, doubled the number of U.S. troops in the country and ordered another 30,000 there by the middle of this year.
He also promised to “end the use of torture without exception” in U.S. anti-terror campaigns and to close Guantanamo Bay, which he called “a recruiting tool for our enemies.” He signed an executive order outlawing torture, cruelty and degrading treatment of prisoners. A companion order closing the Guantanamo prison has proven more challenging.
Congress refused to fund the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons, and foreign countries are reluctant to accept them. Obama did order the purchase of an Illinois prison to house up to 100 Guantanamo detainees. Still, Guantanamo cannot be closed until the disposition of more than 200 remaining detainees is resolved. A failed attempt at bombing a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas has made that more difficult.
Obama also campaigned to restore U.S. prestige abroad by engaging allies and adversaries alike, a direct swipe at George W. Bush, his predecessor. Now, he’s finding that rhetoric tough to live up to.
He vowed to use “tough, direct diplomacy” to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Once in office, he offered dialogue to Tehran, made direct appeals to the Iranian people and included Iran in multinational discussions, while insisting that Iran not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons.
The power centers in Tehran have largely shrugged, and Obama so far has been unable to unite a coalition of countries behind new economic sanctions intended to block Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
A solution for North Korea’s nuclear program also remains elusive. Its envoy to the United Nations said his nation is willing to conduct talks, but only if all sanctions against it are lifted.
On his 2008 campaign Web site, Obama declared that “we must redouble our efforts to determine if the measures implemented since 9/11 are adequately addressing the threats our nation continues to face from airplane-based terrorism,” including screening all passengers against “a comprehensive terrorist watch list.”
The verdict on that promise came last month, when an alleged terrorist known to authorities boarded an airliner bound for Detroit from overseas carrying explosives in his clothes. Disaster was averted when he botched an attempt to ignite the bomb.
During his political run, Obama said he would increase the number of people covered by health insurance and pay for it by raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year and by taxing companies that do not offer coverage to employees.
Although lawmakers have taken steps toward the broad outline Obama promised, it remains unfinished. The House and Senate have passed versions of the plan, but major differences remain. And Obama’s left flank is none too pleased with the compromises to this point, which have all but eliminated a government-run insurance option, something he called for in the campaign.
Even the process has violated one campaign pledge.
“We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies,” Obama said.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, Democrats in Congress and the White House have made multibillion-dollar deals with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in private. C-SPAN asked to televise the negotiations between the House and Senate versions; the White House insists it hasn’t seen the request.
On other domestic promises, from energy to education, Obama has been faced with a tight budget, a struggling economy and a deficit-conscious public that he will need to court if he seeks another term in 2012.
Early on, he had to recant his pledge not to sign legislation that includes lawmakers’ pet projects. “When I’m president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely,” Obama had said in September.
But Congress controls spending, and Obama hasn’t been willing to veto bills approved by his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. For example, he signed what he called an “imperfect” $410 billion spending bill that included 7,991 so-called “earmarks” totaling $5.5 billion. He had little choice. The measure, a holdover from the Bush presidency, was needed to keep government from shutting down.
Obama also promised to require lawmakers seeking money for earmarks to justify their requests in writing 72 hours before they’re voted on in Congress.
That hasn’t happened yet. Nor has his pledge to post legislation online for five days before acting; he broke that pledge with his first bill, a non-emergency measure giving workers more time to bring pay discrimination lawsuits. A promised ban on lobbyists serving in his administration hasn’t been absolute; a few former lobbyists were granted exemptions.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained that by saying:
“Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions.”
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