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Will Obama's promises get mugged by reality?

Modern presidents have struggled to keep their campaign pledges. Here's how we can judge Obama's record.

By Egil "Bud" Krogh, Melanie D'Evelyn / August 13, 2009


The danger of being "mugged by reality" looms for a new president as he tries to follow through on campaign promises.

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In the 1988 campaign, George H.W. Bush pledged to not raise taxes. "Read my lips! No new taxes!" he assured the country. That line helped him win. When under severe economic pressures as president, however, he reversed course, supported a tax increase, and severely damaged his quest for reelection.

President Bush was not alone in his decision to renege. Modern US presidents have fulfilled less than 70 percent of their campaign promises, according to historical studies. So the question arises: How can citizens fairly judge a president's promises?

In his remarks to gay activists at the White House earlier this summer, President Obama said: "I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps."

He may have meant to emphasize that results matter. Fair enough. But at face value, it sounds like we should disregard his "words" and "promises" he can't or won't keep and only look at the results of those promises he decides are important. That's disconcerting.

Promises matter. That was the consensus of former top presidential domestic policy advisers who participated recently at a symposium at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. These advisers spoke candidly about the "realities" that assault new presidents, and they shared some ideas about how citizens can evaluate a president's promises. Here are three:

1. Do the president and his staff regard campaign promises as gospel?

Bruce Reed, who served President Clinton, said: "Campaign promises" should be seen as "gospel." They are "sacrosanct." He said that Mr. Clinton saw the campaign as the "ultimate job interview," and that the administration's success in honoring his campaign promises would determine whether the president would be "rehired." Mr. Reed described the extent to which this commitment filtered down to Clinton's staff. On Clinton's first day in office, The Washington Post ran a full-page spread listing all of his pledges. Reed and other staffers posted the list above their desks and referred to it on a daily basis.

2. Does the president prioritize the most fundamental campaign promises?

The president must take care in prioritizing his campaign promises. The more fundamental and categorical the promise, the more responsibility the president has to carry it through and the less forgiving will be the response if that promise is broken.

Margaret Spellings, who counseled President George W. Bush during his first term, confirmed that the promise Bush made to reform our educational system was one of the "must haves" (as opposed to the "nice to haves"). The "No Child Left Behind" program was the central initiative in Bush's domestic policy, and he spoke frequently and knowledgeably about its importance and implementation. As a result, the electorate understood the high priority he placed on educational reform. While Ms. Spellings acknowledged that "9/11 changed everything," and constrained Bush in pushing forward his promise of educational reform, he was nevertheless successful in getting most of his promised educational reform legislation passed.