Which President Broke More Campaign Promises: Donald Trump or Barack Obama? And How Former Presidents Compare
While presidents kept some of the most famous campaign promises, they also broke quite a few. Donald Trump seems to be doing a pretty good job of keeping his. But how do former presidents — including Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama — compare?
According to USA Today, political scientists say that candidates usually at least try to keep their campaign promises. Five Thirty Eight concurs, noting that when presidents abandon specific campaign promises, they usually do so for reasons that “have more to do with changing circumstances than a lack of principles.”
Below, discover the most famous campaign promises that American presidents broke. Check out Barack Obama’s record on page 13, Donald Trump’s on page 14, and the details on how the two compare on page 15.
1. Woodrow Wilson
- 28th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “He kept us out of war.”
Axios reports that Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But he wasn’t able to keep the promise that the slogan implied — that he would continue to keep the U.S. neutral in the conflict in Europe. Under Wilson, the United States officially entered World War I only a year later. The White House reports that after the election, “Wilson concluded that America could not remain neutral in the World War. On April 2,1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.”
Next: This president promised economic prosperity. And then the Great Depression began.
2. Herbert Hoover
- 31st president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”
Seeker notes that Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” might seem overly ambitious in today’s terms. But with the phrase, “Hoover gave a clear vision of the prosperity he envisioned for the country,” according to Seeker. The publication notes that “Less than a year after he took office, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression, the longest and deepest period of economic decline in the 20th century.” As you might imagine, Hoover couldn’t keep his campaign promises in such dire circumstances.
Next: This president promised to cut government spending.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “We are spending altogether too much money for government services which are neither practical nor necessary.”
USA Today reports that in his 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked opponent Herbert Hoover for excessive spending. He even accused the Hoover administration “of being the greatest spending Administration in peacetime in all American history” in a 1932 speech. USA Today notes that Roosevelt made those accusations “even though economists now agree that more government spending was needed to pull the nation out of the Depression.” Roosevelt himself adopted that line of thinking after he was elected. But as Seeker notes, “Roosevelt’s New Deal programs dramatically increased the federal budget deficit far beyond the levels achieved by his predecessor.”
Next: This president promised to solve a problem that didn’t exist.
4. John F. Kennedy
- 35th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: That he would “eventually close the missile gap.”
USA Today notes that some presidential candidates have made campaign promises that they never intended to keep. One example? John F. Kennedy’s promise to close a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union that he knew did not exist. The Atlantic reported at that the time that when the Kennedy administration took office, the truth of the situation “became known to the president and Defense Secretary [Robert] McNamara, and provided the basis for McNamara’s statement to newsmen last February that he had found no missile gap. It was painful, politically, for the new administration to concede this, but it represented the facts.”
Next: This president promised to stay out of war.
5. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.
CNN reports that Lyndon B. Johnson broke one of his biggest campaign promises: his promise to keep American troops out of the war in Vietnam. Johnson campaigned against Barry Goldwater as “the peace candidate,” according to USA Today. But amid escalating violence once he assumed office, Johnson authorized a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. CNN notes that that campaign preceded Johnson’s deployment of the first American combat troops in Southeast Asia. As Seeker notes, Johnson’s reversal cost him the support of the American public.
Next: This president promised a ‘secret plan’ to end the war.
6. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “I have a secret plan to end the war.”
Richard Nixon typically goes on the list of presidents who were actually terrible people. As Smithsonian.com reports, Nixon ran on a platform that opposed the Vietnam War. But to win the election, he needed the war to continue. Nixon stalled the Vietnam peace talks before he gained office. After he became president, Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia. That action resulted in the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives. And Nixon finally settled for a peace agreement in 1973 that could have been achieved in 1968.
Next: This president didn’t make any campaign promises.
7. Gerald Ford
- 38th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: None because he didn’t make any.
Axios reports that Gerald Ford was the only president to never be elected. History notes that Ford ascended to the presidency because Richard Nixon resigned as the 37th president. Ford was serving as a vice president at the time. But he became the president who came to the office through appointment rather than election because he had replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president just eight months before. Axios notes that that means Ford didn’t have the opportunity to make or break campaign promises like other presidents. “He never made any campaign promises to keep or break. He gets a pass,” the publication explains.
Next: This president promised to solve the energy crisis.
8. Jimmy Carter
- 39th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”
Jimmy Carter campaigned on his promises to end the energy crisis. And while he delivered the quote above just days into his presidency, it echoed promises he made on the campaign trail. Yet as The Atlantic explains, Carter couldn’t deliver on his promise to end the crisis. Carter called for investments in solar-power research. He pushed for legislation that created grants for energy-efficient homes and buildings. Plus, he also created the Department of Energy. But he couldn’t find support for an oil tax, and the energy problem only worsened during his presidency.
Next: This president promised an amendment on school prayer.
9. Ronald Reagan
- 40th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “To put God back in the classroom.”
USA Today reports that Ronald Reagan promised in 1980 to support a constitutional amendment that would allow school prayer. But as the publication notes, that campaign promise “never went anywhere” after Reagan took office. Education Week reported during Reagan’s presidency that the practice of school prayer had been outlawed for 20 years. Reagan proposed the amendment in 1982, but USA Today notes that he never made its passage a top priority.
Next: This president promised not to create any new taxes.
10. George H.W. Bush
- 41st president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
CNN reports that George H.W. Bush broke one of his most memorable campaign promises. While accepting the Republican nomination, Bush promised that he wouldn’t enact new taxes in order to “shore up conservative support and appear tougher heading into the election,” CNN explains. But facing high deficits and the prospect of severe cuts to entitlements once he was in the Oval Office, Bush agreed with a Democratic-controlled Congress on a budget that included new taxes. But he paid the price in 1992, when he lost his bid for re-election.
Next: This president promised to end ‘big government.’
11. Bill Clinton
- 42nd president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “The era of big government is over.”
Bill Clinton had a tough time keeping one of his most notable campaign promises because of the contradictions in his position. The Brookings Institution characterizes the “paradox” of Clinton’s 1996 campaign as his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” Clinton then promised a list of things the federal could do to help Americans through economic change, enable families to cope as both parents work, help people achieve higher education, preserve popular federal programs, and take action on problems ranging from high crime rates to the rate of Americans without health insurance. As Brookings notes, “Big government was over, but smaller government would do a whole lot of stuff.”
Next: This president promised economic growth.
12. George W. Bush
- 43rd president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “What we Republicans should stand for is growth in the economy.”
The Huffington post reports that on the campaign trail, George W. Bush promised to cut taxes to create jobs. He managed to get his tax-cut agenda through Congress. But he saw “less than desirable results” from it. Bush said in his first inaugural address, “We will reduce taxes, to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans.” But the Post reports that he also failed to see his tax cuts translate into jobs. While his administration was in power, the unemployment rate went from 4.2 percent to 7.8 percent, with the country falling into the grips of recession.”
Next: Barack Obama promised to close Guantánamo Bay.
13. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”
As a senator, Barack Obama made one of his most famous campaign promises: that he would close the Guantánamo Bay prison. He argued that terrorists use propaganda about the prison to recruit, and that the astronomical costs of housing each captive were draining military resources. But as Politifact reports, Obama never fulfilled this promise. When the president left office, 41 prisoners remained at the facility — down from the nearly 800 detainees once held there. Politifact also reports that Obama broke many other promises during his presidency.
Next: Donald Trump promised to prosecute Hillary Clinton.
14. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
- Promise he broke: “Lock her up!”
Newsweek reports that Donald Trump’s “promises on the campaign trail and during his first year in office were as unusual as his presidency.” A good example? Trump famously implied that he would prosecute and imprison Hillary Clinton with the campaign chant, “Lock her up.” That has yet to happen. Americans are also still waiting to see if Trump will repeal and replace Obamacare. It also remains to be seen if he’ll truly build a wall (and make Mexico pay for it). Additionally, Trump’s attempt on a “Muslim ban” was blocked by multiple federal courts. And tax plan — which promised tax cuts for the middle class — delivers only temporary benefits for the average American.
Next: Who broke more campaign promises, Donald Trump or Barack Obama?
Who broke more campaign promises: Barack Obama or Donald Trump?
Despite the obvious limitations of comparing a former president with a sitting commander-in-chief who hasn’t finished his term, many Americans wonder whether Barack Obama or Donald Trump broke more campaign promises. While Trump still has time to make good on his campaign promises — and to seek re-election for a second term — Politifact is keeping track of how he’s doing so far.
The publication reports that so far, Donald Trump has kept 8.8% of his campaign promises. He has compromised on 6.9% of his promises. The publication characterizes 32.4% of his promises as “stalled.” A further 45.1% remain “in the works.” And so far, Trump has definitively broken 6.9% of his campaign promises. Politifact reports that during his presidency, Obama kept 48.4% of his promises. He compromised on 27.4% of them. And he broke 24.2% of them — a percentage that we’ll have to wait to see if Donald Trump will improve upon.
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