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So Many Promises, So Little Time

How Successful Has Obama Been At Following Through On The Pledges That Got Him Elected?

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made a lot of promises -- more than 250, according to's Promise Audit. Now, on the eve of his 100th day in office, how has he done fulfilling those pledges? We evaluated the new president on how well he's fulfilled not only his specific promises, but the larger themes of his campaign: change from the Bush administration, strengthening the middle class, re-engaging with the world and bringing transparency and openness to government.


Administration officials have remained conscious of carrying these campaign themes through with them to the White House, but inevitably, the clash of campaign poetry with governing prose has resulted in delays, compromises and a bit of backsliding. Both on the campaign trail and in the White House, Obama has already shown a talent for the dramatic gesture, a trait he shares with his predecessors in the office. What he hasn't done is turn those symbolic gestures into much concrete action, at least not yet.

Change From Bush

Obama is no George W. Bush. But for all his talk of change on the campaign trial, the new president hasn't always delivered on this ubiquitous theme as fully as some of his supporters may have hoped. While he has fulfilled some of his most notable promises to roll back Bush-era policies, such as lifting restrictions on stem cell research, the new president has been less of a "change agent" when it comes to issues such as national security and the Wall Street bailout.

Within his first few days in office, Obama signed executive orders closing Guantanamo Bay prison, prohibiting executive branch employees from accepting lobbyists' gifts and reversing the so-called "Mexico City Policy." He has faced criticism, however, for appointing several high-level officials who were recently involved in lobbying, including Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist.


In another break with his predecessor, Obama announced a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq by 2011. At the same time, he is shifting the military's focus to Afghanistan, where the number of combat brigades in the country will nearly double by the end of the summer. Both the drawdown in Iraq and buildup in Afghanistan are in keeping with long-standing Obama campaign pledges, but that didn't stop some discontent on the left about the president's expansion of a war begun under Bush.

The new administration has faced some backlash as well for funneling taxpayer money into the financial industry, particularly through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Obama has wavered on his promise prohibiting bonuses for failed executives; his angry rhetoric toward the AIG bonuses didn't amount to much more than that.

Vestiges of the previous administration live on as well in the realm of national security. In ordering Gitmo closed, the new president signed orders ensuring lawful interrogation techniques and requiring a review of the current detention policies. Significant questions remain, however, about just how the detainees will be brought to justice. And Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department has troubled some observers by invoking (or maintaining Bush's invocation of) the state secrets privilege three times so far, after Obama criticized Bush during the campaign for invoking this privilege too easily.

Strengthen The Middle Class

Fixing the economy has been job one for Obama, and sometimes jobs two and three. For much of the new president's time in office, attention has fixed on the trillions of dollars -- exactly how much depends on what you count and who you ask -- committed to the financial rescue operation. But Obama's campaign promises to bolster the middle class have hardly been neglected.


Some of Obama's economic initiatives will still be moving through Congress on his 100th day, such as a credit card bill of rights. The progress on others is in question -- the Employee Free Choice Act has been embattled from the start, while a measure that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages appears dead. Many more are bound up in the fiscal 2010 budget, including plans to reduce drug costs; resources for fighting mortgage fraud and creating an affordable housing trust; more health clinics and housing assistance for veterans; and a measure that would aim to replicate the success of the Harlem Children's Zone around the country. One budget provision that might not last long is the Making Work Pay credit, one of Obama's signature programs; initial funding was secured in the stimulus bill, but only through next year.

The stimulus legislation signed in March carried a bundle of Obama's middle-class priorities, including $8,000 for some first-time homebuyers; $2,500 for tuition and other college expenses; an expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and a bigger Earned Income Tax Credit. But the package's main selling point was jobs, both public and private (through expanded community grants and new training), some of them serving the second purpose of giving green energy a boost. The workforce was a particular focus of Obama's first 100 days as he tried to cut into an unemployment figure that topped 8 percent nationally.

The tight times have fueled a new current of populism that the president has found to be a double-edged sword. In some cases, such as the firing of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, the public has been on his side even though some pundits haven't. In others, such as the furor over bonus payments at American International Group, he was seen to be stumbling. As the billions and trillions added up, some budget watchers made their displeasure public with "tea party" protests. Entitlement reform still looms (though Obama has taken small steps in the budget), as does the comprehensive health care reform Obama's supporters are clamoring for. And while Obama opted to let the upper reaches of the Bush tax cuts sunset rather than dropping them immediately, some taxpayers asked: If taxes go down for 95 percent of working families, what happens to the other 5 percent?

Openness And Transparency

The campaign that invited supporters to be a part of "" committed to access and transparency early on. But while the administration has sought to strike that same tone of openness in office, the high standards Obama set on the trail have been slow in coming to fruition. His new media operation has sputtered in providing the services his supporters hoped for from the "first Internet president." He has given public information advocates reason for pause as well as reason for hope. And taming K Street's influence has proven difficult -- and complicated.

Obama's setbacks on the Web are a marked contrast from the sophistication of his campaign shop. It shouldn't be surprising that 100 days hasn't been enough to establish the new wired White House, given the shift to federal IT infrastructure and the avalanche of issues demanding the president's attention. Nevertheless, Obama's promise to post bills online for five days before signing them has been a bust; his ethics pledges vanished from shortly after he took office; and, which was intended to keep the public informed about stimulus spending, is already being redesigned.

Supporters, however, have reason to take heart. Obama's virtual town hall -- and his insistence that officials engage in their own -- show a willingness to keep the dialogue open, as does the open call for ideas to improve Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, whose duties include building the online clearinghouse, is an advocate of "democratizing data." And the appointment of the nation's first chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, has earned raves from transparency advocates.

Obama has made headway on some of his promises to close unfair access, such as cronyism and improper contracting. His opposition to lobbying has proven more problematic. Soon after taking office, Obama set strict conditions for lobbyists seeking to enter his administration, but over the coming weeks he took heat both for the exceptions he granted and those he didn't. A National Journal study in March found that 30 out of 267 officials the administration had tapped for senior positions had been registered lobbyists in the previous five years. The administration has sought to regain its footing on the issue and has begun working with top headhunters to find senior-level candidates who pass the test.

The White House's lobbying headaches aren't over, though. Obama's memo on how to shepherd the stimulus funding restricted lobbyists to written appeals for the money and told agencies to post those requests online within three days, echoing another campaign promise. That upset not only lobbyists but also open-government advocates, who feared the influence process would just go underground, resulting in less transparency. Meanwhile, only eight out of 28 agencies receiving stimulus money are keeping online logs.

Information watchdogs may find the record mixed elsewhere, too. Obama eased the release of presidential records early in his presidency and declassified torture memos from the Bush administration recently after vigorous debate in his administration. But advocates say the Justice Department's loosening of Freedom of Information Act rules last month is marred by the administration's decision to keep portions of a massive FBI database closed to the public. And Obama has reserved the option to keep government whistleblowers quiet in some cases.

Restore America's Standing In The World

Obama has made significant strides toward re-engaging with the world after a tumultuous eight years. But a president can only achieve so much concrete action on foreign policy in the first 100 days, especially with his team still coming together, and many of these strides have been symbolic -- a change in tone, rather than policy.

The president displayed candor and humility on his trip overseas for the G-20 meeting. He was received warmly by international leaders. In a widely-noted exchange, he smoothed over a disagreement between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao. But Obama was unable to win support from European leaders for a globally coordinated stimulus plan, one of the U.S.'s primary objectives at the conference.

He's made a concerted effort to reach out to the Muslim world, starting with his inaugural address in which he spoke of "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Working to fulfill his promise to expand diplomatic relations, Obama gave his first formal interview as president with Dubai-based Al Arabiya network and appointed envoys to Palestine and "Af-Pak."

The new president has also appointed special envoys to other parts of the world. He has a border czar for Mexico, special envoys to Sudan and Northern Ireland and an envoy on climate change. Still, he has yet to fulfill his promise to appoint a special envoy for the Americas, despite calls from some hemispheric leaders at the Summit of the Americas. (He did, however, increase aid to Haiti and funding for a microloan program administered by the Inter-American Development Bank.)

Reaching out to countries the last administration sought to contain, Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in February proposing concessions on missile defense in exchange for Russian support negotiating with Iran. Obama again took up nuclear nonproliferation in a speech he delivered in Prague, putting his rhetorical weight behind campaign promises to safeguard nuclear material, strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and work with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Obama's call for diplomacy with Iran is yet another drastic departure from the previous president. But, again, even those who cheer the president's first steps on the international stage would admit that much more remains to be done in the next 100 days.

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