Opinion

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.

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

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?

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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.

3. Does the president show flexibility in how he'll carry out his promises?

At the symposium, I shared my experience working in the Nixon White House to reduce crime in the District of Columbia. Soon after President Nixon took office, he directed me, a junior staff member, to carry out his 1968 campaign promise to reduce crime nationally and specifically in the District of Columbia. He had condemned the district as "the crime capital of the world." Following up on the president's order within an hour of the meeting, I called Mayor Walter Washington and asked him to "please cut the crime in the district and call me back when the crime is down."

After a few months, the crime rate in the district continued to sky-rocket. Because of the vital importance of honoring Nixon's promise, we set about the hard task of determining what would actually reduce crime. Following excellent recommendations from Congress and the Department of Justice, the mayor added 1,000 police and installed ample streetlights. Showing flexibility in how to achieve a reduction in crime, Nixon supported the mayor in establishing narcotics treatment programs throughout the city.

These measures – which went beyond the traditional "law and order" approach of the Republican Party – enjoyed bipartisan support and helped decelerate crime rates. Going into the 1972 campaign, we felt that we had done all we could to carry out Nixon's 1968 campaign promises and we ran the campaign, in part, on this performance.

Obama has introduced one of the most ambitious policy agendas in recent history, and he must shore up public trust by acting in good faith to pursue these commitments. By moving forward aggressively on healthcare reform while his popularity – though somewhat declining – is still high, he has indicated this is his highest domestic priority. At the same time, he is demonstrating flexibility on the schedule by suggesting that he would like a bill by the end of the year rather than by the congressional August recess he had asked for earlier.

During the campaign, Obama promised not to tax healthcare benefits. But pressure is increasing from both Democrats and Republicans to break this key campaign promise. If he follows this path and agrees to such a tax to avoid the excessive costs now projected for healthcare reform, he may well pay for this reversal.

The question for the citizenry is whether such a reversal is viewed as a sellout of a fundamental, "sacrosanct" campaign commitment, or as one of the myriad and necessary compromises that must be made in the legislative process to achieve a vital goal.

When a president makes a promise to carry out a policy, support or oppose a political position, or take any action, he creates an expectation that he will carry it out. It is therefore crucial for a president and his staff to be prudent about the promises – especially the categorical ones – he makes. If, under the pressure of changed circumstances, he must deviate from his promise (and there are times when deviating is in the best interest of the country), he must offer clear justifications for this departure. Otherwise, his promises will be judged as meaningless.

Egil "Bud" Krogh, former deputy counsel to President Nixon and author of "Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House," is senior fellow for leadership, ethics, and integrity at the Center for the Study of the Presidency. Melanie D'Evelyn is the center's project director for the National Consortium for Character-based Leadership.

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