Every politician makes promises, and every politician breaks promises. It’s a universal rule of politics that’s as old as politics itself. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is no exception. He’s made scores of promises, both as a candidate and as president; as the latter, he’s broken scores of them.
It is tempting to say, and conservatives would heartily agree, that never in the history of the American presidency have so many promises been made and broken. But that would likely be untrue. Moral Low Ground has neither the time nor the resources to compare Barack Obama’s record to that of his many predecessors. Nor do we wish to.
Had MLG existed in Bushian times, we probably would have needed a month to dig up all W’s broken promises. But these are the heady days of hope and change, and so it is that Obama finds himself under our merciless microscope. We’ve identified nearly 100 broken Obama promises, and we’ve compiled this handy Top 50 list for your reading (dis)pleasure. For the sake of appearance, we’ve forsaken the suspense of a countdown and listed them in ranked order from 1 through 50. If this page was a scroll, it would unravel all the way to the floor.
President Barack Obama’s Top 50 Broken Promises
1- Halve the deficit by 2012: Obama’s biggest broken promise. Less than a month after taking office, the president decried the nation’s $1.3 trillion deficit and vowed to cut it in half by 2012. Yet the national debt has increased more during Obama’s first three-and-a-half years in office than it did during George W. Bush’s entire two-term presidency. Yesterday, the national debt topped $16 trillion, a staggering amount that keeps going up. President Obama blamed his failure to deliver his promise on his predecessor, correctly pointing out that Bush paid for two wars and a Medicare prescription drug program with borrowed cash. Obama also blamed the ongoing economic woes for his inability to halve the deficit. But he should have thought about unforeseen circumstances before making such a bold and, ultimately, undeliverable promise.
2- Hold Wall Street accountable: Obama has repeatedly pledged to “hold Wall Street accountable” for its myriad crimes against the global economy and the American people. But from day one he has done quite the opposite, picking top Wall Street executives and government officials responsible for destroying the economy to run his economic transition team and failingto bring any of the ‘banksters’ who made billions by destroying the livelihoods of millions of Americans to justice.
3- Public Option: The public health insurance option, in which a government-run health insurance agency would have competed with private health insurance companies to provide affordable health care to millions of Americans, was repeatedly touted by Obama as a necessary and essential part of any health care reform. Candidate Obama vowed that “any American will have the opportunity to enroll in [a] new public plan.” But the public option died an agonizing death, and while all the blame cannot be placed on the president, it was his willingness to compromise with Republicans, members of his own party and the insurance industry lobbyists who helped author the bill in order to get the watered-down measure passed into law that ultimately led to the public option being dead on arrival. The United States remains the only developed nation without single-payer, universal health care, and many thousands of Americans continue to die each year for lack of health insurance.
4- Close Guantánamo: Obama repeatedly vowed to close the US military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba during his 2008 election campaign. One of the very first things he did after taking office was to issue an executive order requiring that the prison, infamous worldwide for torture and the deliberate imprisonment of hundreds of innocent men and boys, be closed within one year. Nearly four years later, GITMO remains a dark stain on America’s reputation.
5- Hold Bush war criminals accountable: President George W. Bush and many of his top officials, as well as top military and intelligence figures, planned, authorized or presided over the murder, torture, rape, unlawful execution, massacre and wrongful imprisonment of tens of thousands of individuals, most of them innocent, in the name of fighting terrorism. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama asserted that these crimes would be investigated. But once in office, not only did the president refuse to investigate or prosecute any of the Bush-era war criminals, he has repeatedly acted to protect them from justice. Just last week, final immunitywas granted to Bush’s CIA torturers.
6- Begin withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 2011: The president promised to begin drawing down troops from what is now the longest war in US history by July 2011. That did not happen; the number of US troops in Afghanistan continued to rise and although it has since fallen slightly, more than 84,000 remain. More than 2,000 have been killed, along with tens of thousands of innocent Afghan men, women and children, while the Taliban remains a formidable foe in control of much of the country.
7- Increase minimum wage to $9.50/hour: While campaigning, Obama pledged to “raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011, index it to inflation and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to make sure that full-time workers can earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs such as food, transportation, and housing.” The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25/hour.
8- Establish foreclosure prevention program for homeowners: Candidate Obama vowed to establish a $10 billion foreclosure prevention fund to assist troubled homeowners with refinancing or selling their homes. And while the president did create such a program as part of the TARP bailout, the number of homeowners helped has been pitifully small and the scheme has been roundly slammed as an abject failure.
9- Introduce a comprehensive immigration billwithin a year: “I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days. But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.” ~Barack Obama, 5/28/08. No such bill was forthcoming.
10- Close the “revolving door” between public and private sectors: Just days after taking office, President Obama vowed to “close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely.” Yet he has warmly embraced K Street, granting ethics waivers and appointing prominent lobbyists to crucial administration posts. OpenSecrets.org identified 409 Obama administration officials who have spun through the revolving door.
11- Hands off medical marijuana: Candidate Obama campaigned on a pledge to adopt a “hands-off” approach to medical marijuana, which is legal in 17 states and Washington, DC. But the Obama administration has launched an all-out war on weed, utilizing various arms of the federal government to crack down on state-legal, taxpaying businesses that bolster the economy as well as the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana patients across the nation.
12- No tax increases for families earning less than $250,000: “I can make a firm pledge. Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes,” vowed candidate Obama. Yet as president, Obama raised the tax on cigarettes by 62 cents per pack. He also introduced a tax on indoor tanning services. And the president’s signature Affordable Care Act, aka ‘Obamacare,’ amounts to a tax on those individuals who choose to go without– or who cannot afford– health insurance.
13- Establish a cap and trade system to reduce global warming: “[I] will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming – an 80% reduction by 2050. To ensure this isn’t just talk, I will also commit to interim targets toward this goal in 2020, 2030, and 2040. These reductions will start immediately, and we’ll continue to follow the recommendations of top scientists to ensure that our targets are strong enough to meet the challenge we face.” ~Barack Obama, 10/8/07 (PolitiFact). Nothing of the sort has happened; Obama rarely even mentions climate change and the US, along with China and a host of other developed nations, continues to actively thwart progress toward meaningful action against global warming. Fellow Democrat and climate change warrior Al Gore has slammed the president for his failure to lead on this critical global issue.
14- End Bush-era military commissions for terrorism suspect trials: As a candidate and as president, Obama pledged to find an alternative to Bush-era military tribunals, which were declared illegal by the Supreme Court’s 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfelddecision, as a means of trying suspected terrorists. But Obama revived the military commissions in 2009, continuing one of the worst legal and human rights violations of the Bush years.
15- End income tax for seniors earning less than $50,000: “Obama and Biden will eliminate all income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year. This will provide an immediate tax cut averaging $1,400 to 7 million seniors and relieve millions from the burden of filing tax returns.” ~Obama-Biden Social Security Plan, 2008. Nothing of the sort has happened.
16- Increase capital gains and dividend tax on high-income earners: Candidate Obama declared that he would raise the capital gains and dividend taxes from 15 to 20 percent for individuals earning in excess of $200,000 per year or couples making more than $250,000 annually. But President Obama not only failed to push for such tax increases, he also extended the Bush-era tax cuts which disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans.
17- Sign the Freedom of Choice Act: “The first thing I’d do as president,” candidate Obama said in 2008, “is sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” a congressional bill that affirms the “fundamental right” of women to choose to have abortions. Once elected, the president said he had other priorities and that he wanted to diffuse conservative outrage over the issue.
18- Establish a $60 billion bank to fund infrastructure projects: Candidate Obama promised a massive infusion of funds to repair, renew and upgrade America’s crumbling infrastructure. This National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank never materialized.
19- Tax oil companies on their record profits: In 2008, candidate Obama vowed to enact a windfall profit tax that would force Big Oil to shell out $500 rebate checks to individual Americans and $1,000 to married couples. “I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills,” he promised. Oil companies were enjoying record earnings at the time; since then their profits have only increased. Yet Obama’s windfall profits tax is nowhere to be found.
20- Achieve an agreement establishing an independent Palestinian state: Addressing the UN in 2010, President Obama declared that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that can lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent, sovereign state of Palestine living in peace with Israel.” This is the same Obama who once refreshingly acknowledged that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” But the president’s actions have sadly done nothing to curb Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine or its equally illegal settlement expansion. Indeed, by continuing to approve billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel, Obama is endorsing Israeli occupation, apartheid and the continued ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.
21- Expand ENDA to include sexual orientation and gender identity: As both candidate and as president, Obama vowed to expand the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Not only has he failed to do so, he also delayed issuing an executive order which would have ensured that taxpayer-funded federal contractors don’t discriminate against applicants or employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
22- No indefinite military detention of Americans: In 2007, candidate Obama declared that “we are not a nation that locks people up without charging them.” Yet by quietly signing the National Defense Authorization Act on New Year’s Eve 2011 when hardly anyone was paying attention, President Obama authorized the indefinite military detention without charge or trial of American citizens suspected of being terrorists or terrorist supporters. This issue would rank much higher on this list if it weren’t for the fact that no American has yet been indefinitely detained without charge or trial for such an alleged offense, and the president has vowed never to detain Americans in such a manner– although as this list attests, Obama’s promises too often turn out to be lies.
23- Treat drug use as a public health issue: “We have to think more about drugs as a public health problem,” and less of a criminal issue, candidate Obama asserted, pledging to “shift resources” from punishment to treatment and prevention. But Obama’s federal drug budget has maintained the Bush-era disparity allocating around 60 percent of funding for punitive measures and the failed War on Drugs and just 40 percent for treatment and prevention. “The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it’s just that: talk,” lamented Neil Franklin, a former Baltimore narcotics cop and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
24- Stop sending US military aid to countries that use child soldiers: President George W. Bush signed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, banning US military aid to countries that use child soldiers, in 2008. President Obama shockingly granted waivers from the law to four African countries, enabling them to receive American aid despite the fact that they employed soldiers under the age of 15. The administration promised the waivers would be for just that one year– but Obama granted them again in 2011.
25- Close loopholes that enable and enrich oil speculators: The president vowed to “enact simple legislation to close these loopholes and increase transparency on the market to help bring oil prices down and prevent traders from unfairly lining their pockets at the expense of the American people” (Politifact). He has not.
26- Close secret prisons: One of the very first things President Obama did after being being sworn in was to issue a decree banning torture, closing CIA secret prisons and ordering the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year. But nearly four years later, GITMO remains open for business, secret prisons still exist (they’re just run by the military instead of the CIA now) and prisoners are still being tortured and even killed.
27- Hold Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial in a civilian court: President Obama gave the world renewed faith in America’s adherence to the rule of law when the Justice Department announced that self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had been brutally tortured in US custody, would be tried in a civil court in New York City. KSM would not be tried before a hostile, closed-door military commission in which secret evidence, hearsay, and evidence obtained through torture were admissible, and in which the accused would not be permitted to see the evidence against him; he would be brought before a Manhattan jury in an open proceeding. Then, in a dramatic reversal just three months later, the White House ordered the Justice Department to find somewhere else to hold the trial. Worst of all, the idea of trying KSM before a secret military commission was back on the table.
28- Human rights violators barred from entering United States: In August 2011, President Obama signed the Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities, banning human rights violators from entering the United States. But months later, former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose forces beat, murdered and terrorized Yemenis during the Arab Spring uprising, was welcomed into the US for medical treatment. Obama’s signing was itself an act of blatant hypocrisy, conveniently ignoring the hundreds of human rights violators already living in the United States. Among these is anti-Castro Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, the Western Hemisphere’s most wanted terrorist, who co-plotted the bombing of a Cubana Airlines commercial flight in 1976, an attack which killed 73 innocent people.
29- Negotiate health care reform legislation in public: The president promised to hold health care reform legislation negotiations in public, “around a big table.” “We’ll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies — they’ll get a seat at the table, they just won’t be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies,” he said. But many of the most important negotiations occurred behind closed doors, and a leading health insurance industry figure actually wrote portions of the bill that became the Affordable Care Act.
30- Waive tax penalties on individuals who take early withdrawals from individual retirement accounts: Candidate Obama promised to allow penalty-free ‘hardship withdrawals’ from IRAs for amounts up to $10,000. He quickly abandoned that pledge.
31- Restore Superfund: “Will restore the strength of the Superfund program by requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of contaminated sites they created,” candidate Obama vowed in 2007. He would do this, he said, by increasing taxes on the oil and chemical industries. He has not.
32- Give bankruptcy judges the authority to modify troubled mortgages: “Obama will work to eliminate the provision that prevents bankruptcy courts from modifying an individual’s mortgage payments,” candidate Obama promised. That never happened.
33- Remove nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert status: During the 2008 campaign, Obama promisedthat he would work with Russia to remove “as many (nuclear) weapons as possible” from hair-trigger alertstatus. Although there have been negotiations with Moscow, this still has not been achieved.
34- Create an international group to assist Iraqi refugees: Candidate Obama cited America’s “moral obligation” to assist the millions of Iraqis displaced by the US-led invasion and occupation of their country and vowed to form an “international working group” backed by $2 billion in US funding to help them. This has not happened.
35- Prevent pharmaceutical companies from blocking consumer access to generic drugs: Candidate Obama promised his administration would “prevent drug companies from blocking generic drugs from consumers by prohibiting anti-competitive agreements and collusion between brand name and generic dreg manufacturers intended to keep generic drugs off the market.” Although the president addressed the issue in his 2010 budget outline, that’s pretty much where his promise died.
36- Label genetically-modified foods: In 2007, candidate Obama pledged that he would work to “let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they’re buying.” More than 90 percent of Americans agree, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters poll. But the president has done nothing to achieve GMO labeling.
37- Clean up Vieques: Candidate Obama promised to “actively work” to clean up the toxic mess left by the US Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico, whose residents had the unfortunate experience of living downwind from a US Navy bombing range for six decades. Billions of tons of bombs were dropped; deadly chemical weapons were tested and stored there too. Cancer and infant mortality rates are much higher than the national average in Vieques, yet Obama has failed to deliver on his promise.
38- End Bush-era government interference in scientific investigations: Candidate Obama slammed the Bush administration for interfering in scientific research and investigations, particularly on climate change, and vowed to end such meddling. But the Obama White House blocked government scientists from warning the public about the potential impact of the devastating 2010 BP Gulf Oil spill in a blatant attempt to spin the disaster.
39- Reduce earmarks to 1994 levels: On the ’08 campaign trail, candidate Obama vowed that he was “committed to returning ‘earmarks’ to less than $7.8 billion a year, the level they were at before 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress.” But spending on lawmakers’ pet projects has exceeded double that amount for most of Obama’s presidency.
40- Sign the Employee Free Choice Act: Candidate Obama promised to sign the Employment Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to unionize, into law. He has failed to deliver on that promise, betraying his Labor base by taking no meaningful action to push for the measure when it became stalled in Congress.
41- Double cancer research funding: Candidate Obama pledged to double cancer research funding from its 2008 level of $4.8 billion per year within five years. As of this May, funding stood at $5.8 billion.
42- Mandate that employers provide workers with 7 paid sick days: While campaigning in 2008, Obama said he would “require that employers provide seven paid sick days per year so that Americans with disabilities can take the time off they need without fear of losing their jobs or a paycheck.” Another broken promise.
43- No executive bonuses for companies in bankruptcy: Candidate Obama said he would tell companies that were going through bankruptcy proceedings that they could no longer pay bonuses to their executives. He never followed through on his pledge.
44- Energy-efficient vehicles: As a candidate, Barack Obama made a host of promises regarding energy-efficient vehicles– he would “work with Congress and auto companies to ensure that all new vehicles have flexible fuel capability … by the end of his first term in office”; he would require more flex-fuel government vehicles; he would require a plug-in fleet at the White House… to date, none of these promises has been kept.
45- Open the door for the import of lower-cost prescription drugs: Barack Obama wooed seniors in 2008 by promising to “allow Americans to buy their medicines from other developed countries if the drugs are safe and prices are lower outside the US.” He has not.
46- End no-bid contracts: Candidate Obama heavily criticized the Bush administration for awarding no-bid government contracts to well-connected corporations like former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He also pledged to end no-bid contracts above $25,000. Yet the Obama administration has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in non-competitive contracts, including a scuttled $24.6 million Afghanistan reconstruction deal to a top Democratic donor.
47- Pass a comprehensive test ban treaty: Candidate Obama vowed to “immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” an international agreement banning the testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty remains unratified.
48- Establish an independent watchdog agency to probe congressional ethics violations: “Will use the power of the presidency to fight for an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations so that the public can be assured that ethics complaints will be investigated,” candidate Obama promised on the campaign trail. This never happened.
49- Full funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Candidate Obama vowed to improve upon the government’s shamefully abysmal 17 percent funding level for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by fully funding the program. This is not happened.
50- Support a manned lunar mission by 2020: Candidate Obama boldly pledged to “endorse the goal of sending human missions to the Moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars.” But by 2010, President Obama called for an end to NASA’s lunar program, leaving failed Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to promise us the moon instead.