Presidential inaugurations are traditionally occasions for stroking one’s chin and offering sober assessments of what the president and the nation can accomplish in the next four years.
This is bound to be an exercise in futility. Four years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath, no one had heard of the tea party, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon, Abbottabad, the Arab Spring, Sheldon Adelson or the 47 percent. “Sandy” referred to beaches or a legendary pitcher for the Dodgers, not a devastating hurricane or a shooting at an elementary school.
It’s safe to predict that we will continue arguing in 2013 over the debt ceiling, gun violence and immigration. For everything else, the crystal ball for this year — not to mention the next four years — is cloudy.
So let’s look backward instead, to Obama’s record of success and failure. His partial successes — works in progress — offer the best clues to what he may yet achieve.
PolitiFact, a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has kept track of the 508 promises Obama made when he was running for president in 2008. This week, it released an “Obameter” report that rated more than two-thirds of his promises as “Promise Kept” or “Compromise,” a better average than voters cynical about campaign pledges had any reason to expect.
Remember Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope”? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.
Other, lower-profile “Promises Kept” testify to Obama’s vision of an activist government — not Big Brother, but “my brother’s keeper,” as he put it during the campaign.
Expanding broadband access, a credit-card bill of rights, increasing minority access to capital, closing the “doughnut hole” in the prescription drug plan, rural development grants, a best-practices list for businesses to accommodate workers with disabilities, boosting the Veterans Affairs budget for mental health: Page after page of popular ideas that went from campaign rhetoric to reality.
Most of the accomplishments look better up close than they do when depicted abstractly as merely “spending.” Familiarity with the particulars breeds respect for government, not contempt.
The list is a reminder of the stakes in 2012. Had the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and his party won the 2012 election, hundreds of the “Promises Kept” would have become “Promises Repealed.”
The “Promises Broken” list is also instructive. It consists mostly of Obama initiatives rejected by Congress, including eliminating all oil and gas loopholes, taxing carried interest as regular income, ending no-bid contracts above $25,000 and dozens more.
Obama’s greatest failure was on housing. He pledged to create a $10 billion foreclosure-prevention fund, which he promised to expand to $75 billion. The aim was to help 9 million homeowners. So far, fewer than 1 million have received assistance. The main culprits are the banks, which dragged their feet shamelessly on refinancing mortgages. But the administration never figured out the right incentives to accelerate the process.
The president’s promises on unemployment were made before the economy collapsed, so he can’t rightly be held accountable for them. (The bogus forecast by his economic team in 2009 that joblessness would quickly fall to less than 8 percent wasn’t a promise.) But he failed to fight hard enough in 2009 and 2010 — when he had a Democratic Congress — for the $60 billion infrastructure bank he promised and for small-business initiatives that might have led to more job creation.
The president also failed to lift the cap on payroll taxes for earnings above $250,000, which would raise enough money to secure Social Security for the foreseeable future. And his pledge to reduce health insurance premiums by an average of $2,500 a year per family was pure folly.
The category “In the Works” is more encouraging. Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, reducing oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030 and closing the gun-show loophole are among the promises that have a real chance of being kept in a second term.
PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, also includes a “Truth-O-Meter” that aims to keep Obama and other politicians and public figures honest.
The president’s honesty scores over the last four years haven’t been perfect, but they are better than the average of politicians assessed by the site. To succeed in a second term, he’ll have to maintain that kind of performance. Straight talk is the only antidote to the arrogance and instinct to overreach that often afflicts re-elected presidents.
Obama won a second term even though he failed to restore strong economic growth. He won because of his vision of a government that tries to solve problems instead of just getting out of the way.
Even a Republican House and recalcitrant Senate won’t stop him from chipping away at his pledge list over the next four years. His success or failure will depend largely on external events we can’t predict.
Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”