4 of Obama’s Promises: Did He Break Them or Keep His Word?
On February 10, 2007 — exactly eight years ago — Barack Obama announced he would run for president. “It was here, in Springfield, where North, South, East and West come together that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people — where I came to believe that through this decency, we can build a more hopeful America,” he told the crowd assembled where President Abraham Lincoln gave his seminal “House Divided” speech, warning that America’s divisions were tearing apart the country.
The symbolism may seem heavy-handed in retrospect, but it effectively represented the policy aspirations and political philosophy of the man who was to become the first African-American president. Illinois Senator Barack Obama addressed a nation on the brink of the most devastating economic collapse since the Great Depression, and throughout the campaign, his message of “hope and change,” a slogan that became the most enduring image of the 2008 elections, appealed to a nation facing skyrocketing unemployment, stagnant wages, and a disgraced financial sector. His desire to build a better America by drawing the diverse nation into “one people,” ending acrimonious partisanship and bringing about government transparency, decreasing the country’s global footprint, and improving economic security for the average citizen was a welcomed change for voters after the Bush administration. Obama defeated Arizona Senator John McCain decisively on an election day that came amid the worsening recession.
“Mr. Obama will come into office after an election in which he laid out a number of clear promises: to cut taxes for most Americans, to get the United States out of Iraq in a fast [and] orderly fashion, and to expand health care,” noted The New York Times on election night.
After the passage of this eight-year anniversary, the time Obama has left in office will be smaller than the time he spent campaigning for president, yet that 2007 speech announcing his intention to run still can serve as an important document. It makes easy the comparison between what he hoped to accomplish, or what he promised to accomplish, and reality. His goal of bringing bipartisanship to Washington serves as a signpost for how campaign rhetoric differs from actual results; instead of across-the-aisle compromises, the Republican-dominated Congress is now working to dismantle much of Obama’s agenda.
That Obama’s presidency is in its self-described fourth quarter creates a certain vantage point from which to examine the progress he has made toward his goals. There are an almost infinite number of promises, pledges, and policy goals that can be examined, and here is a look at some of the most partisan areas Obama earmarked for change as the Democratic nominee for president in 2008.
The Affordable Care Act
As the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, Obama campaigned on the idea that health care was a right. Noting that many Americans had seen their health care premiums increase in recent years, he argued in the second presidential debate that “we’ve got to reform health care to help you and your budget.” He reminded potential voters that he had “said from the start of this campaign” that “we have a moral commitment as well as an economic imperative to do something about the health care crisis that so many families are facing.” In that same debate, he explained that families who liked their insurance coverage could keep their current plans, and pledged his administration would work with employers to lower family premiums by as much as $2,500. “If you don’t have health insurance, you’re going to be able to buy the same kind of insurance that Senator McCain and I enjoy as federal employees. Because there’s a huge pool, we can drop the costs,” he added, flushing out further details of his plan. “And nobody will be excluded for pre-existing conditions, which is a huge problem.” During his 2009 inauguration speech, Obama further expounded on the importance of health care reform, noting that the high cost of health care “causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds.”
More than six years have passed since that inaugural address; the health care reform has been hammered out, hotly debated, passed, partially caused a shutdown of the federal government, and produced a Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionality. Its key provision — the individual insurance marketplaces, designed to allow consumers to comparison-shop for health insurance policies in online marketplaces where their collective bargaining power will theoretically foster competition and drive down price — have launched. In the full year that the individual insurance mandate has been active, the uninsured rate has dropped dramatically. But still, whether this reform was good for America and its finances, or bad, is still a divisive congressional debate. Earlier this month, Republicans led the House of Representatives in a symbolic vote on a full repeal of Obamacare, symbolic because not only will it be stalled in the Senate, but because Obama would never sign it. Still, even though the health care reform remains under fire, its benefits and its negatives continue to be debated, and the long-term impact unknowable.
It is clear that when Obama began discussing the possibility of a health care reform as a candidate, his vision was overly optimistic and far from fully fleshed out. His oft-repeated promises that health insurance premiums would decrease by as much as $2,500 for the average American family and that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” were completely unrealistic. While there is no excuse for his over-generalizations, it can be argued that the president was trying to evoke a new policy under which health care would become more accessible when he spoke of massive decreases in premium costs. He also knew the change could not be too drastic, explaining his instance that insurance customers could keep the same plan and same doctors.
Still, the Affordable Care Act has accomplished (or is in the process of accomplishing) its most important goal. “The ACA starts from a place of wanting to make sure that all individuals can obtain affordable insurance, even if they have a prior medical condition,” as Aaron Carroll MD, MS, wrote in a blog post for the forum of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Data collected over the past several months has consistently shown that significantly more Americans are insured now than before the Obamacare insurance policies went into effect in January of 2014. After reaching a high of 18% in the final quarter of 2013, Gallup’s measure of the United States uninsured rate dropped to 12.9% in the fourth quarter of last year — the lowest level recorded in the seven years since that trend has been tracked.
The reversal in the growing rate of uninsured Americans coincided with the activation of the new policies created under the health care reform. The fact that the uninsured rate has remained steadily decreasing also suggests that the drop is linked to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s cornerstone provision, the individual insurance exchanges. Of course, Gallup’s data is not scientific proof that the health care reform has been successful, but the research firm did note that “the Affordable Care Act seems to be accomplishing its goal of providing more Americans with health insurance.”
It is easy to criticize the Affordable Care Act for doing little to fix the underlying problems in the American health care system. But “the ACA starts from a place of wanting to make sure that all individuals can obtain affordable insurance, even if they have a prior medical condition,” wrote Carroll. Together, access, care quality, and costs are referred to as the iron triangle of health care. Just as a triangle’s legs can be lengthened if another side is shortened, one or “perhaps even” two of those components of health care can be improved, but those improvements have to come at the expense of a third, according to Carroll. Therefore, to ensure a health care system can achieve better outcomes, costs will increase or some change in access will be required. “If you demand that people buy insurance, then you have to make sure they can afford it. That’s why you have subsidies,” he argued. “The plus is that many more people get access. The negative is that it costs people and the government money. That’s the trade-off,” he wrote.
Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 was the fruition of one of the most important building blocks of President Barack Obama’s extremely successful 2008 campaign. “As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end — for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world,” he boasted in an October 2011 statement. “After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011. “So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
Critics of the president’s foreign policy strategy, based on the simple concept of “don’t do stupid shit,” claim Obama’s decision to leave Iraq showed naivety. They worried he was trading hard-won stability in the country for a unrealistic desire to diminish the United States’ global footprint. Those same critics found vindication when the Islamic State’s rise to power forced the Obama administration to become involved once again in the stability of Iraq.
The rise of ISIL has not only presented a significant foreign policy quandary for the president, but it provides a new lens through which to analyze the Obama administration’s schedule for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Political turmoil in Iraq has cast an ominous shadow over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. When cities in northern Iraq began falling to the terrorist organization earlier this year, the Obama administration began fielding questions about whether the insurgency had prompted a reassessment of the United States’ exit from Afghanistan; when Obama decided the United States would bomb ISIL positions in early September, reporters asked the president in a subsequent press briefing what the instability in Iraq meant for Afghanistan. But the president was quick to highlight the differences between the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan, defiant that Afghanistan would not experience the same problems as Iraq.
Officially, the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan concluded on December 28, 2014. However, 10,800 American troops will remain in the country this year focusing on counterterrorism and training local soldiers, a decrease from the early 2014 level of 38,000. Obama wants all troops to be home by 2016, when he leaves office.
What’s important to remember is that Afghanistan is not entirely stable; insurgents have already overrun a portion of the country, keeping Afghan Security Forces in action. This means that just as conflict was not over at the end of the combat mission, the insurgency will continue to plague the remainder of the U.S. withdrawal. “As General Mattis testified last month, ‘the gains achieved at great cost against our enemy in Afghanistan are reversible,’” reads Senator John McCain’s published testimony, prepared for a February 11 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the situation in Afghanistan.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon predicted in a December 2014 piece published by Reuters that Obama will not pull out the remaining troops by 2016. “Beyond leaving in jeopardy the U.S. effort to stabilize and bring democracy to Afghanistan, this policy would deprive the United States of bases that it uses to fly drones and launch commando raids in the region — in eastern Afghanistan or western Pakistan — against al-Qaida targets,” O’Hanlon wrote. “In 2015, Obama will have to figure all this out.” In fact, the administration is now weighing a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to slow the pace of the withdrawal.
While Obama has done much to meet his promise to end U.S. wars in the Middle East, the complexities of the situation in Iraq and the renewed hostilities in Iraq and Syria, this promise can be seen as a compromise.
Cutting taxes for the middle class
Reforming the tax code and not raising taxes on the middle class (effectively those earning between $25,500 to $76,500, although that categorization is far from perfect) have always been top priorities of the Obama administration. As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to eliminate the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans — families making over $250,000 or individuals earning more than $200,000. In 2001 and 2003, the Bush administration passed changes to the U.S. tax code that shifted the relative burden of taxation from the richest Americans to the rest of the taxpaying public. For the wealthiest one percent, “the Bush tax cuts are worth, on average, about a thousand dollars a week; for the bottom fifth, about a dollar and a half,” noted the editors of The New Yorker in the weeks preceding the 2008 election. Those tax cuts were scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, making taxation a key issue of the debates between McCain and Obama in 2008.
For Obama, who was building his campaign on the idea of governmental change, the pending expiration of the Bush-era cuts presented an opportunity for the candidate to discuss policy ideas to reform the arcane American tax code so that it would be more efficient and redistribute the tax burden more fairly. “Change means a tax code that doesn’t reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it,” he explained at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America. I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the startups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow. I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95% of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.” The elimination of the Bush tax cuts on wealthy Americans would also pay for his policy proposals, like the reform of the health care system.
But allowing the Bush-era rates to expire, restoring the top rate to the 39.6% of the Bill Clinton administration, was not a simple task. By the end of 2010, Republicans had won a sizable midterm election victory that sent a wave of Tea Party lawmakers to Congress, meaning that during the final month of the lame-duck legislative session, the Democrats had less clout to impose the higher rates. Republicans wanted to make the lower rates permanent across all income brackets, although the Congressional Budget Office calculated that extending the cuts beyond that December 2010 deadline would result in $2.9 trillion in lost revenue over a 10-year period. Facing the GOP’s threat to block all legislation until the tax matter was settled, the White House and congressional Democrats compromised. Still, many Democrats in Congress worried that the cuts’ impact would swell the budget deficit. Many were never convinced that extending the Bush tax cuts was acceptable, although Vice President Joe Biden was able to persuade enough members of the caucus that the proposal was a “good deal” in a “bad situation” to pass it. It helped that Republicans conceded on the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.
“I’ve said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts,” said Obama at the time. “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” After the rates were extended for another two-years as a part of that deal, the White House negotiated a tax increase for those families earning more than $450,000 or individuals making more than $400,000, making his pledge to end the Bush-era tax cuts a partial success. For lower-income Americans, the lower tax rates are now permanent, a promise kept.
But still, lower taxes from middle-income Americans and a broad reform of the tax code remain on the president’s agenda.
In this year’s State of the Union Address, Obama laid out an ambitious plan to assist the middle class, and lowering taxes for working families is a key pillar of that policy agenda for 2015. His middle class economics ideally will “putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.” To that end, Obama’s budget proposal, released by the White House early this month, depended upon increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, in part by raising the top capital gains and dividends rate to 28%.
Another key tenet of his plan to end “mindless austerity” and improve the economic security of the middle class is the closing of corporate tax loopholes “so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America.”
As a candidate, Obama promised many things about reforming U.S. immigration laws. He pledged to support “additional personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at our ports of entry,” to “remove incentives to enter the country illegally by cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants,” and to support economic development in Mexico — all of which have been kept, to some degree.
Funding for Mexico has increased only modestly for economic development, but significantly for law enforcement and military in order to support the country’s fight against drug cartels. To make employing illegal immigrants more risky, Obama made what Dan Griswald, director of the free-market Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, called a classic compromise. Government contractors are required to check employee social security numbers through an E-Verify system, but the administration backed away from imposing stricter rules proposed by the Bush administration. Since Obama has taken office, the U.S. border with Mexico is more secure, even though Republicans are far from satisfied. The fact-checking website Politifact based its analysis of this point on the fact that illegal immigration has slowed over the past several years, although it did acknowledge this was largely because of the economic downturn in the United States. Still, at the same time, deportations have risen, reaching a record high in 2013 for a variety of reasons. A bill signed by Obama in 2010, in response to increased violence in Mexico, provided $600 million in supplemental funds for enhanced border protection. Plus, an additional 1,200 National Guard troops were sent to guard the border.
But, “in the end, though, you can’t deploy border security, it must be something that is achieved,” noted Christopher Wilson of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “This gets into one of the major problems with the whole border security debate — the lack of an accepted definition of the term.” Or, in other words, more work is needed, in Wilson’s opinion.
Obama pledged to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation in his first year in office. That promise never materialized. In June 2013, a comprehensive reform passed the Senate by an extremely partisan vote of 68 to 32, before dying in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives thanks to the inclusion of a so-called amnesty provision. Shortly after November’s midterm elections, which gave the GOP the majority in the Senate in addition to the House, Obama issued an executive order on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants and an indefinite reprieve from deportation. This unilateral action did not exactly make good on the promise that the president made to create a path to citizenship for America’s approximately 11 million illegal immigrants, but it represents a small step in that direction. Experts say the path to citizenship must come from Congress, not the president. Republican lawmakers, outraged Obama eschewed the legislative process and created a blanket reprieve, are in the process of derailing his immigration action by including language in the appropriations bill funding the Department of Homeland Security that will negate his changes. The current funding for that department, which includes the two key immigration agencies, is set to expire on February 27. For now, Democrats are blocking the spending bill that will overturn Obama’s executive action and unravel other programs like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Politico reports that a number of conservatives in the House and Senate are advocating for allowing the department’s funding to expire.
Therefore, Obama’s legacy on immigration is quite mixed.
There are quite a few, more specific areas where Obama failed to live up to his campaign promises. In fact, Politifact’s list runs six pages.
His administration was unable to pass legislation ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to ink a deal with Russia to move “nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert,” to allocate $2 billion for Iraqi refugees, to expand the Family Medical Leave Act to include leave for domestic violence or sexual assault, to reduce the Veterans Administration backlog, to allow Medicare to negotiate for cheaper drug prices and average Americans to purchase prescription drugs from other developed countries, to create a $60 million bank to fund roads and bridges, to restore habeas corpus rights for “enemy combatants,” and to craft tougher rules against the so-called revolving door for lobbyists and former officials.
By comparison, the list of promises kept totals 12 pages. The Obama Administration has inked rules requiring all children to have health insurance coverage, establishing a credit card bill of rights, requiring health plans to disclose how much of a patient’s premium goes to care, and ending the use of torture. He improved relations with Turkey, granted Americans unrestricted rights to visit family in Cuba and send remittances. His presidency oversaw the centralization of ethics and lobbying information for voters, the scheduled release of presidential records, and the lowering of the high school dropout rate.
There are many other areas to judge Obama’s progress, from civil rights to job creation to reform of the financial sector to ending bipartisanship in Washington. But that discussion will be saved for a later post.
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