Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Long List of Broken Promises

Published in Commentary Magazine on August 23, 2013



In his column yesterday, Daniel Henninger—in writing about President Obama’s summer trips and series of speeches on the economy—asks, “Is anyone listening to these speeches? Do they matter?”

The answer to both questions is, I think, no. And it raises a deeper issue: Has any previous president devalued his words quite so much, in quite so many ways? Perhaps, but I rather doubt it.

In order to support my claim, it’s worth taking a stroll down memory lane, to compare what Mr. Obama has said with what he has done. The sheer bandwidth of his broken promises and empty claims is quite extraordinary.

For example, there was his promise not to allow lobbyists to work in his administration. (They have.) His commitment to slash earmarks. (He didn’t.) To be the most transparent presidency in history. (It’s not.) To put an end to “phony accounting.” (It started almost on day one and continues.) And to restore trust in government. (Trust in government is at near-historic lows.) Think, too, about his pledge to seek public financing in the general election. (He didn’t.) And to treat super-PACs as a “threat to democracy.” (He embraced them.)

Then there was his administration’s pledge to keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent. (It remained above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression.) To create five million new energy jobs alone. (The total number of jobs created in Obama’s first term was roughly one-tenth that figure.) To identify all those “shovel-ready” jobs. (Mr. Obama later chuckled that his much-hyped “shovel-ready projects” were “not as shovel-ready as we expected.”) And to lift two million Americans from poverty. (A record 46 million Americans are living in poverty during the Obama era.)

Let’s not forget the president’s promise to bring down health care premiums by $2,500 for the typical family (they went up) … allow Americans to keep the health care coverage they currently have (many can’t) … refuse to fund abortion via the Affordable Care Act (it did) … to respect religious liberties (he has violated them) … and the insistence that a mandate to buy insurance, enforced by financial penalties, was not a tax (it is).

There was also Mr. Obama’s pledge to stop the rise of the oceans. (It hasn’t.) To “remake the world” and to “heal the planet.” (Hardly.) To usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” (Come again?) To punish Syria if it crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. (The “red line” was crossed earlier this year—and nothing of consequence happened.) That as president “I don’t bluff.” (See the previous sentence on Syria.) And of course the much-ballyhooed Russian reset. (Tensions between Russia and the United States are increasing and examples of Russia undermining U.S. interests are multiplying.)

And let’s not forget Mr. Obama’s promise to bring us together. (He is the most polarizing president in the history of Gallup polling.) Or his assurance to us that he would put an end to the type of politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” (All three have increased during the Obama presidency.) And his counsel to us to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” (Remind me again whose campaign allies accused Mitt Romney of being responsible for the cancer death of a steelworker’s wife.)

I’m sure people could add to this list, but there’s enough here to establish a pattern. Even if you stipulate that politicians often make claims they can’t keep—that some are the product of cynical deception and others the product of unforeseen circumstances—Mr. Obama is in a category all his own.

Does it matter? I think so, in part because I don’t believe it’s good to have as president someone for whom words have no objective meaning and who believes he can construct his own narrative to fit his own needs. But I also think we’re seeing an accretion occur. It’s happening later than I would have hoped, but the public does seem to be tuning out the president. The latest pivot to the economy—has that pivot occurred a half-dozen or a dozen times before?—is meaningless. Nothing has happened before; why should anything happen now?

Mr. Obama talks, and he talks, and he talks. My how he loves to talk. But his words don’t translate into anything real. And eventually that does take a toll.

In the 2008 campaign, while criticizing his opponents, Mr. Obama said in a somewhat exasperated tone, “I mean, words mean something.” For most of us they do. But not, it appears, for the president of the United States.

Peter Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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