Taking stock of Obama’s promises


January 14, 2015

Taking stock of Obama’s promises

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Obama’s final State of the Union address is his last chance to live up to once defiantly optimistic rhetoric that recently has devolved into pleading for change

by Dan Roberts in Washington and Mona Chalabi in New York

The return to Saudi Arabia on Monday (January 11) of the 104th detainee left languishing in Guantánamo Bay marks a concerted scramble to shore up Barack Obama’s legacy as he gives his final State of the Union address to Congress this week.

Seven years ago this month, in freezing conditions on the steps outside Capitol Hill, the president told euphoric crowds that American ideals would once again “light up the world” in an inauguration speech that promised an end to such ugly compromises between liberty and security.

In some respects, the 44th President does rival Democratic legend Franklin D Roosevelt for his progressive accomplishments. Healthcare reform and action on climate change would alone be worthy of historic comparison. An unprecedented period of job growth since the banking crash breaks records even among Republicans.

But few have laboured under the weight of such expectation, or helped add to it with such soaring poetry. That first inaugural described how he hears “fallen heroes in Arlington [cemetery] whisper through the ages”. In last year’s State of the Union, he declared: “We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores.”

That 2015 speech showed Obama’s snarky side too, as he taunted opponents who clapped when he said he had no more campaigns to run. “I know, because I won both of them,” shot back a president whose command of comedic timing has repeatedly put professional comedians to shame.

Yet, not only is this year’s address his last big chance for talking, but also the last big chance to show he can live up to the rhetoric.

Though Obama has more than a year left in office, the Iowa caucus on  February 1 fires the starting gun in a presidential election likely to eclipse whatever achievements he can drive past a bitterly divided

The governing may not be over, but the accounting has begun. Assessing the legacy of the world’s most powerful man before he has even left office is an imperfect science. The most meaningful answer will come from the American people when they choose in November between one of the many Republicans seeking to reverse Obama’s policies, or a Democrat seeking to cement them.

But Guardian analysis of the 132 significant promises made over the course of six previous state of the union speeches, two inaugurals and Obama’s first address to Congress in 2009 reveals just how many will remain unfinished for his successor to tackle.

The big ones are signed off and there for all to see. Alongside climate, jobs and health, Obama can boast of meeting, in Cuba and Iran at least, his pledge to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

Only when you study the speeches in detail to assess whether in fact they have delivered – do the oddities jump out: the forgotten boasts, or wrinkles in established wisdom.

Take Obama’s 2011 promise to “become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015”. Though his environmental record is strong overall, this particular pledge represents a moment of bold, unrealistic optimism from Obama – the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration show that sales have stagnated. A 2011 report from the Department of Energy foretold possible reasons why – “initial costs and lack of familiarity with the technology”. Even at the federal level, hybrid and electric vehicles make up just 7% of all vehicles purchased over the past six years.

Conversely a 2010 claim to “double our exports over the next five years” and strengthen trade with Asia, looks good on its own but needs to be put in context. An impressive growth in exports – up 50% between 2009 and 2014 – has been overshadowed by the fact that ambitions were again set too high. More importantly, that success is undermined by the fact that imports have also risen 46% over the same period meaning that the overall trade deficit has barely dropped.

Other stories are so twisty as to merit, acres of caveats. In 2011, Obama promised to reduce the deficit by $400bn over a decade and when the financial year came to a close on 30 September 2015, the federal deficit had shrunk by $45bn in the space of 12 months – but it was still an enormous $439bn. Government spending has actually risen by $0.2tn between 2009 and 2015) but overall Obama has managed to make progress in reducing the deficit, despite political deadlock, due to rising government receipts.

Even where success is largely acknowledged, there are wrinkles. The flagship healthcare reform was repeatedly justified on the grounds of cost – and although this should of course not be the only measure against which its success should be judged, there at least, it appears to have fallen short. Costs, including out-of-pocket expenses, have risen faster than inflation. The president instead, has to resort to technical explanations such as “bending the curve” of healthcare inflation to explain why this is still a notable achievement.

But the most telling story is the slide in Obama’s own expectations over the period of these speeches.What began as a promise to “brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come” quickly morphed into calls for Congress to allow him funding for more manufacturing hubs and use his “convening power” to persuade states to pay for more preschools.

And the biggest boast of all, to rebuild the American dream, appears as far off as ever, as wage growth and social mobility fail to match achievement elsewhere in the economy.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” acknowledged Obama in 2014. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

The tone toward lawmakers in that State of the Union in particular marks the point the president becomes pleading, almost exasperated with his fellow politicians. “Congress, give these hard-working, responsible Americans that chance,” he urges. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.”

By 2015, he was giving a taste of what we may expect this year, vague language focusing less on demands he knows will not be met and more on the political changes that need to happen first. “Tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us,” he said.

But Obama is nothing if not an optimist, and the 2016 final State of the Union is likely to centre on his belief that change and progress are both inevitable.

“Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision,” he said last year.

“I know how tempting such cynicism may be,” he added. “But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long,”

 

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