Five State of the Union promises Obama kept, and five he’s broken

February 12, 2013

The State of the Union is an opportunity for the president to make lot of promises. But since most of those promises then need to wind their way through Congress, not all of them are kept. Here's our look at how the major promises in President Obama's past four SOTU addresses have held up:

Promises kept

1. Passing a major health reform law. In his 2010 address, the president asked legislators to move forward on the health reform legislation they’d spent the better part of the year debating. “Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform,” he said. “Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”

Congress did indeed get it done: It passed the Affordable Care Act two months later, on March 23, 2010. The law expands health insurance to 30 million Americans, ends pre-existing conditions and puts limits on how much insurance companies can charge individuals. After surviving a Supreme Court challenge and the president’s reelection, health reform looks almost certainly as though it's here to stay.

2. Stabilizing the banking system. Obama in 2009: “We will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend, even in more difficult times.”

The administration’s bank rescue plan largely succeeded in this goal. No major banks were allowed to fail, though it is more debatable whether they have been preserved in ways that serve the economy effectively. And the bank bailout funds, with only a handful of small exceptions, have been repaid.

3. He kinda, sorta met his 2009 deficit goal. Here was Obama in his 2009 address: “I held a fiscal summit where I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office.”

He basically ended up delivering, though it took a year longer than expected. The budget deficit in fiscal 2009, during which Obama took office, was 10.1 percent of GDP. In 2013, the CBO estimates it will be 5.5 percent of GDP — a 45 percent decline.

4. Kept certain young immigrants from getting deported. In both 2011 and 2012, Obama promised to “stop expelling responsible young people” who came to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. In August 2012, the White House granted deportation relief to certain young illegal immigrants at the administration’s discretion. These immigrants will have their deportation cases deferred for two years. (That said, the White House has also touted its high number of deportations, which Obama has carried out faster than Bush.)

5. Banning insider trading for members of Congress. In his most recent address, the president directed Congress to send him “a bill that bans insider trading by Members of Congress. I will sign it tomorrow.” Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced that legislation two days after the speech and the STOCK Act became law in spring 2012.

Promises broken

1. No climate bill. In his 2010 address, Obama called on Congress to act on climate change. “And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

That never happened. The Senate did go on to debate a “tripartisan” climate bill in the spring, drafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But the bill faltered after infighting over oil taxes and it never came up for a vote.

2. No comprehensive immigration reform. In 2011 and 2012, Obama called for a comprehensive immigration overhaul “to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.” That effort has languished until very recently, although Congress and the White House have  ramped up border security, and the administration granted certain young immigrants relief from deportation.

3. No comprehensive tax overhaul. Obama also called for a sweeping overhaul of the tax code in 2011 and 2012. The U.S. has “one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.  It makes no sense, and it has to change,” he said in 2011, calling for Congress to get rid of loopholes and “use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years.” He also called for individual tax reform that would simplify the code, impose a minimum tax on the wealthy, and hike taxes on the top 2 percent of earners. The fiscal cliff deal raised individual taxes on just 0.7 percent of earners, and aside from a handful of business tax giveaways, didn’t touch the corporate tax code.

4. No additional infrastructure spending. Remember when Obama called for more infrastructure spending in 2011? “We’ll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges.  We’ll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based [on] what’s best for the economy, not politicians.” He put those ideas forward in the American Jobs Act, which contained $50 billion for roads and bridges as well as a new infrastructure bank. But the proposal died in Congress.

5. A very weak housing plan. Obama in 2009: “We have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and refinance their mortgages.” In a narrow sense, this pledge was fulfilled; according to HUD’s most recent “report card," the several programs designed to help homeowners have counseled 8.4 million families. But many housing advocates view the programs as inadequate to the scale of the housing crisis, and only 1.1 million families have received permanent modifications of their mortgage debts through the HAMP program.

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Brad Plumer · February 12, 2013