Percentage complete: 42*
Perhaps because he anticipated that the reeling economy would be difficult to turn around, Barack Obama kept his promises in this area relatively modest. Although he pledged to create millions of jobs in the energy and infrastructure sectors, he avoided making guarantees of a quick or easy economic recovery.
Obama has begun to deliver on most of his promises in this category. The stimulus bill partly fulfilled his pledges to help displaced workers and to boost small-business development, while the passage of the Credit Card Act and the progress of financial reform legislation begin to meet his promise to protect consumers and guard against the abuses that led to the crisis. Polls show that some Obama voters feel that both the stimulus and the financial reform efforts have been too weak to be effective, and that these initiatives along with the bank bailouts have betrayed Obama's "Main Street over Wall Street" campaign rhetoric.
One pronouncement that Obama made more than two years ago may raise eyebrows today: "I will always be a strong advocate for a market that is free and open." The president's critics on the right believe that his bailouts, his quasi-chairmanship of General Motors, and his move toward massive new regulation of the health care, energy, and finance industries make a mockery of his free-market credentials. But Obama says he wants to save capitalism, not destroy it, and his policies could end up recalling the New Deal more than the "march to socialism" that his detractors have prophesied.
White House 'Enemies' List
Here are the most formidable obstacles that could keep Obama from fulfilling his campaign promises on financial reform:
Special Interests Wall Street's crash did not prevent the financial industry from spending a reported $300 million in lobbying to influence reform efforts in 2009, along with hundreds of millions more in campaign contributions. Although this was not enough to stop the House from passing a comprehensive reform bill last month that included the Consumer Financial Protection Agency so loathed and feared by the industry, it was credited with forcing a number of compromises to that bill's regulatory scope. And the industry's lobbyists, who already outnumber members of Congress by nearly 5-to-1, will have an even more favorable working margin as they focus their efforts on the upper chamber.
The Senate Opinions diverge on whether the pending retirement of Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., will help or hurt the prospects for financial reform this year, but there is no question that, as with health care reform, the "world's greatest deliberative body" is a major obstacle. Although Dodd's financial reform proposals are considered in some ways more ambitious than those in the recently passed House bill, they may have no more chance of passing than did his equally far-reaching original draft of the health care bill. House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., has expressed skepticism that the CFPA can win any Republican votes in the Senate; if this is true, it will leave the Democratic leadership once again scrambling to secure every Democratic vote, including senators with strong ties to the financial industry, such as Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
The Politics Of Compromise Throughout his campaign and his first year, Obama has shown a predilection for compromise -- with Republicans, conservative Democrats and interest groups. Whether this tendency represents admirable political pragmatism, a genuine desire for national consensus or craven weakness depends on one's point of view, but the result has been a series of concessions on several measures including the stimulus and health care reform. So far there have been only minor disagreements between Obama and the liberal caucus on financial reform, but given the uniformity of GOP opposition to the CFPA, Obama and Senate Democrats may be tempted to drop it as they did the public option.
Of course, Obama might argue that compromise is the "friend" of reform, not the "enemy" -- that allowing "the perfect" to be "the enemy of the good" could mean no reform at all. But in the current mood of populist outrage, any compromise on this issue may be viewed -- by Obama's base and by many independent voters -- as betrayal.
Recovery Complacency Although unemployment numbers are still dangerously high, other economic indicators -- the stock market and the GDP -- have been on an upswing. If the "lagging indicator" of employment follows that upward trend this year and recovery seems certain, one negative result could be a return to the systemic complacency that helped cause the crash in the first place. This scenario may seem unlikely now. But if public outrage over the meltdown sees even a modest abatement, Congress will feel that much less empowered to take on the financial lobby, and Obama's promises to increase regulation of the industry, made at the height of the crisis in fall 2008, could suffer the fate of other situational campaign pledges such as the windfall oil profits tax that he proposed during the summer 2008 gas crisis.
* "Percentage complete" refers to the average progress made completing each promise in this category -- not the percentage of promises that have been completed. If Obama has made no effort to complete a promise, he gets 0 percent for that promise. If he's taken some identifiable steps short of legislation or an executive order, he gets 25 percent. If legislation has been introduced or significant progress is apparent, he gets 50 percent. A 75 percent mark is awarded if most elements of completing a promise are in place but more work needs to be done. A 100 percent mark is given when the promise has been fulfilled.