Imagine if nearly every Democrat in Congress had signed a pledge to never support a single change in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Combined with the no-tax-hike pledge nearly every Republican in Congress has signed, the country would be trapped in an escape-proof fiscal and political straitjacket.
Fortunately for President Obama, Democrats haven’t signed such a pledge. Along with his decisive reelection win, that gives him far more room to maneuver in the upcoming fiscal-cliff melodrama as he fights for the umpteenth time to fulfill the promise he has been making for five years, to end Bush-era tax cuts for the most affluent Americans.
For better or worse, and sometimes to the shock of voters who aren’t paying close attention, presidents generally try to keep their promises. It is hard to envision Obama giving up on this one.
Holding a president accountable for promises made is easier now than ever. The pioneer is Politifact and its incredibly precise Obameter, which is tracking more than 500 promises that Obama made in 2008. The record so far: 72 percent kept, in the works, or resolved with a compromise; 7 percent stalled; and 18 percent broken.
Politifact’s top 10 list of broken promises includes five that Obama tried and failed to get through Congress. It also includes “bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda,” which may have been an impossible dream in today’s divided capital. Other unkept Obama promises include raising taxes on income from dividends and capital gains; lifting the payroll-tax cap on earnings above $250,000; imposing a windfall-profits tax on oil companies; and cutting the deficit in half. All are rooted to one degree or another in the GOP’s ironclad resistance to raising taxes, epitomized in the August 2011 primary debate in which the eight candidates onstage all said they would reject a fiscal deal that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts.
This type of promise carries huge risk, as George H.W. Bush memorably demonstrated. “Read my lips, no new taxes,” he said at the 1988 Republican convention. Inevitably there was political hell to pay when, in 1990, he agreed to raise taxes as part of a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit. The package set the stage for a budget surplus and booming economy, but not before Bush lost his reelection bid. The incident has not gone down in Republican strategy manuals as a cautionary tale about maintaining flexibility. Rather, the lesson appears to have been, "Dig in and never change your mind."
It takes a political pro to figure out how to handle major promises that can’t be kept. Ronald Reagan promised to cut taxes, raise defense spending, and balance the budget. Not surprisingly, doing all three things proved impossible, so he ditched the last. “His position by 1984 was, two out of three ain’t bad,” says William Galston, a former Clinton administration aide. “He selected the one that voters cared least about to break. I was Walter Mondale’s issues director [in 1984], and I can attest that it worked out just fine for Reagan.”
Reagan, by the way, did try to make headway on balancing the budget --by raising taxes several times after having cut them. He endorsed the idea of a no-tax-hike pledge, but that was in 1986 after he had won a second term and would never run for anything again.
It’s not unusual for presidents to run into trouble with their own parties in the course of keeping promises, even those central to their agendas. George W. Bush never sold most of the GOP on comprehensive immigration reform. And while Republicans largely toed the line to help pass Bush’s No Child Left Behind education-reform law, a backlash developed among some Republicans who considered it a federal intrusion on state authority.
“It was surprising,” says former Bush adviser Karen Hughes. As governor of Texas, “he saw how important accountability was to improving school performance. There were some Republicans who didn’t have the same view,” she says. Some Republicans also complained about Bush’s expansion of Medicare to include prescription-drug coverage, Hughes says, but in that case as well as on education, the proposals were part of his platform and he had used the campaign to build support for them.
Obama will not be able to avoid intra-party demands and friction. Some Democrats already are mobilizing to head off entitlement cuts, which the president signaled in his first term are on the table as part of any grand bargain. Resistance from liberals is guaranteed when negotiations turn, as they will, to issues such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare or changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated. Yet congressional Democrats who end up supporting whatever deal emerges are likely to have a political advantage over Republicans who decide the same: They won’t have to violate a signed pledge.