Barack Obama makes his first State of Union address tonight against a backdrop of Democratic Party reversals in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts; a stalled health-care reform initiative that appears doomed to failure; a strong sense among many Americans that Obama has not focused on jobs and economic recovery, understandably the chief concern of a nation with a 10% unemployment rate as America only gradually recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the causes of which are to be found in the previous administration.
Pundits have seized on the decline of Obama’s once sky-high public-approval ratings and decided he has obsessed over healthcare when he should have focused like a laser on the economy; that his professorial demeanour puts him at a disconnect with everyday Americans; and that he has accomplished little if anything in his first year of office as a self-declared “Yes We Can” agent of change.
The record says otherwise.
By early January of this year, a little less than a year after taking office, Obama already had fulfilled 91 of his campaign promises, with another 275 promises “in the works.” Another 137 promises are "stalled" (87), were "compromised" (33), broken (15) or not yet rated (2). This according to www.PolitiFact.com, the independent, non-partisan fact-checking service of the St. Petersburg Times, a foundation-owned newspaper with a commitment to investigative journalism.
Promises kept in his first year and others that will be enacted in his second year – conspicuously not including the healthcare reform initiative – will result in Obama having the most extensive record of keeping his specific campaign promises of any U.S. president in history.
Obama’s first-year achievements include the following (the list is mine, derived from sources credited below and others):
1. Restoring the economy to positive growth by the summer of 2009, just seven months after his inauguration, following the sharpest decline in the U.S. economy since the Dirty Thirties. Britain, less hard hit, began to eke out its first positive GDP only in December. Japan remains mired in recession.
2. Presiding over a dramatic stock-market recovery. By November, the Dow Jones had soared 60% from its 12-year lows of just six months earlier.
3. Extracting from Congress a $789-billion stimulus package. This was larger, on a per capita basis, than FDR’s first-year spending on the New Deal.
4. Creating or saving an estimated one million jobs so far with that stimulus program, mostly of teachers, police, fire and other essential-service workers at the distressed state level, to which federal funds have been directed.
5. Keeping unemployment at the same level (10%) where it was at this point in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, despite inheriting far worse economic conditions than the Gipper was confronted with.
6. Cutting taxes for 95% of working families.
7. Cutting taxes for small-business owners.
8. Extending jobless benefits and suspending taxes on those benefits.
9. Increasing funding of food stamps, the main federal poverty-relief program.
10. Creating a foreclosure-prevention fund for homeowners. Distressed homeowners can now meet with federal housing insurers to refinance a mortgage they are having difficulty paying, in a process that can be completed in one day.
11. Boosting job creation by expanding the federal loans program for small business. Since Obama took office, loans through the Small Business Administration have soared by 70%.
12. Launching the “cash for clunkers” program, soon emulated by other Western nations, that jump-started sales of new, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The program, immensely popular with the public, also helped rescue auto dealerships – often the major employer in small towns – until the industry recovers from 2008’s unprecedented 40% plunge in U.S. vehicle sales.
13. Enacting a tax credit for buyers of plug-in hybrid vehicles.
14. Requiring energy utilities to produce a minimum 15% of power from renewable resources.
15. Expanding eligibility for the State Childrens’ Health Insurance Fund (SCHIP) to four million children of low-income families. SCHIP is the program that provides health-insurance coverage for the children of families whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid.
16. Fighting to reduce spiralling healthcare costs with electronic medical records. Medicine is one of the few professional fields where records are kept by hand, on often illegible handwriting. That includes doctors’ prescriptions that pharmacists are obliged to confirm by phone. It includes specialist physicians who, in the absence of an easily accessible electronic record of the patient, order unnecessary tests for patients who’ve already had the test recently.
17. Appointing at least one Republican to the cabinet by securing Robert Gates’ commitment to continue to serve as Secretary of Defense. Defense is one of the “big four” cabinet posts. (The others are State, Treasury and Attorney General.)
18. Banning lobbyist gifts to administration employees.
19. Ending the practice of administration appointees working in areas where they once had influence in a previous lobbying career. Limiting lobbyists’ access to the White House. And limiting former White House aides from working as lobbyists after leaving the administration - to curb the “revolving door” practice of government employees and lobbyists becoming interchangeable.
20. Pushing lobbyists off White House advisory panels.
21. Making public for the first time the names of lobbyists and other visitors to the White House.
22. Maintaining public-approval ratings at the same level as where the Gipper’s were at this point in his presidency, despite a progressive agenda that has brought out the worst instincts of special-interests trying to protect a status quo favourable to them but not the general population;
23. Initiating education reforms under Arne Duncan, widely lauded as the most competent education secretary in recent memory.
24. Rebuilding schools in New Orleans as a first step in replacing Civil War-era schools across the nation.
25. Funding high-speed broadband access for K-12 schools.
26. Using the stimulus funds to kick-start spending on alternative-energy R&D, with the goals of creating long-term jobs that cannot be off-shored, and addressing the twin threats of dependence on foreign oil and global warming. This includes Obama’s authorization of $38 billion in Department of Energy spending on renewable-energy projects.
27. Using the stimulus funds to replace aging roads, highways, bridges, hospitals, power plants and other aging infrastructure. This creates jobs that cannot be off-shored, and makes the economy more efficient and globally competitive in the long term. This is the biggest infrastructure program since the interstate highway network was built in the Eisenhower era.
28. Ending the previous policy of tax breaks for corporations that offshore American jobs. The new policy is incentives to employers that repatriate jobs to America.
29. Launching America’s first high-speed passenger rail initiative, with an $8-billion down payment, for the first of 13 planned rail corridors throughout the country.
30. Announcing a planned overhaul of America’s antiquated national power grid, for reasons of safety, job creation, industrial efficiency and to incorporate alternative energy sources.
31. Directing the Pentagon to end the war in Iraq, with troop withdrawals underway beginning last year.
32. Refocusing on Afghanistan, a campaign promise, with additional troops already deployed in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
33. Providing better body armor for U.S. troops.
34. Ending the previous administration’s practice of stop-losses that kept soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than the terms of their enlistment.
35. Increasing pay, benefits and quality of housing for active military personnel. Improving conditions at Walter Reed and other VA hospitals and clinics. Increasing benefits for veterans. Authorizing additional health centers for veterans.
36. Initiating a new policy of government hiring preferences for veterans’ spouses. First Lady Michelle Obama chose support of military spouses as her chief East Wing priority.
37. Signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act upholding the principle of equal pay for equal work by women and men.
38. Appointing first National Performance Officer to identify and cut waste across the administration.
39. Appointing first Chief Technology Officer and establishing the first Cyber Security Office. Appointing special advisors on Native American issues, violence against women, and urban policy.
40. Signing into law the Matthew Shepard Act, expanding hate-crime law to include sexual orientation and other factors.
41. Reversing his predecessor’s restrictions on stem-cell research.
42. Increasing federal spending on medical research by $10 billion.
43. Fighting for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
44. Creating an “artist corps” for schools.
45. Increasing the size and number of Pell Grants. Increasing funding of other student financial assistance programs.
46. Expanding funding for AmeriCorps.
47. Increasing funding for NASA. Exploring more international partnerships to make more extensive use of the International Space Station (ISS). Emphasizing for the ISS a role in biological and physical research.
48. Committing to another Space Shuttle flight.
49. Visiting more nations and meeting with more world leaders than any of his predecessors in their first six months in office.
48. Raising America’s global regard to world’s most-admired nation, up from seventh last year. As a result of Obama’s diplomatic efforts, European nations have stepped up their troop contributions to Afghanistan and Japan has greatly increased its help in financing that mission. Russia and China have overcome their lengthy resistance to joining the U.S. and Europe in applying sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear-weapons ambitions.
50. Engaging in “course correction” in Afghanistan, spending about four months to develop a new strategy for combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban when it was apparent that the president’s initial approach was not working. The new policy limits aerial bombing, and prioritizes humanitarian aid, development of infrastructure, and eradication of government corruption.
51. Renewing loan guarantees for Israel.
52. Hosting the White House’s first Seder.
53. Working with Russia and other former Soviet republics to locate and destroy unaccounted-for nuclear-weapons materiel (“loose nukes”) before it falls into the hands of terrorists.
54. Negotiating with Russian president Dimitry Medvedev on nuclear-arms control talks, which commenced last year, with an ultimate goal of eradicating the immense nuclear-weapons stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia. Leading by example, the U.S. policy aims to prevent more nations from joining the “nuclear club,” and encourage existing nuclear powers to dismantle their nuclear arsenals in creating a world without nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the only real “weapons of mass destruction.” By contrast, the necessarily imprecise targeting of chemical and biological weapons, due to abrupt changes in wind strength and direction and other weather factors, makes them no match for nuclear warheads in lethality.
55. Scrapping the previous administration’s missile-shield scheme for Eastern Europe, which was needlessly provocative of Russia and was of dubious efficacy.
56. Cutting missile-defense spending by $1.4 billion in 2010.
57. Changing policy to allow Cuban-American families to visit Cuba for reunions with loved ones.
58. Achieving bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for phasing out the costly F-22 warplane and other obsolete weapons systems.
59. Making financial assistance to Pakistan conditional on its efforts to fight terrorism.
60. Signing an executive order on his second day in office outlawing U.S. torture of detainees, bringing the U.S. back into compliance with the Geneva Conventions that the U.S. itself sponsored the creation of. Closing secret CIA interrogation “black sites” in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
61. Ending the media blackout on covering the return of fallen soldiers to Dover Air Force Base. The previous president did not visit Dover AFB during his eight-year tenure. Obama participated at Dover AFB in the “honorable transfer” of fallen soldiers, and later comforted their families. Federal funding of funeral expenses is no longer held up for months, but is now provided to grieving families when their loved ones arrive at Dover.
62. Enforcing greater respect by his administration for the Freedom of Information Act, and increasing transparency at all government departments and agencies.
63. Increasing funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
64. Directing the EPA, last fall, to assume authority for directing reductions in CO2 emissions – declaring them a threat to human health – regardless of whether Congress takes action on this front.
62. Allowing states to enact fuel-efficiency standards higher than federal standards.
63. As with the successful passage of the stimulus package, which was inspired by the president but developed on Capitol Hill, asking Congress to devise a program of universal health-care coverage, respecting the legislative branch’s competence to do so, rather than imposing a White House proposal as was done in the failed 1993-94 effort by a previous administration. In what would be the most significant social legislation in four decades if it gains passage, Obama gave Congress maximum flexibility to work out the details, except for three conditions: that all Americans be covered; that private insurers no longer “cherry pick” the healthiest prospective customers and deny benefits to claimants on specious grounds; and that the new program end the runaway healthcare costs that threaten to bankrupt the nation by mid-century.
65. Expanding funding to train primary-care health providers and public-health practitioners.
66. Nominating one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in recent memory, the first Latina to be appointed to the highest court.
67. Proposing the most sweeping financial-market reforms since the Glass-Steagall Act of the Dirty Thirties, to prevent a recurrence of the recession triggered by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. Only a handful of (mid-sized) banks failed in the more than six decades that Glass-Steagall was on the books. Within a decade of its being revoked, in 1999, allowing commercial banks to engage in high-risk trading in derivatives and other dodgy investments for their own account, all of America’s largest banks needed to be bailed out to prevent an implosion of the global financial system.
68. Conducting rigorous “stress tests” on the financial strength of America’s biggest banks, which restored market and investor confidence in the U.S.’s largest banks.
69. Recouping taxpayer rescue funds from the rescued banks, at a rate that so far represents a 17.5% annualized gain for the taxpayer on the repaid funds.
70. Rescuing General Motors and Chrysler, recognizing that the automakers represent a significant portion of what remains of a hollowed-out U.S. manufacturing sector, and that a recession was not an ideal time to allow hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their jobs. Less than a year after its Washington-directed fast-track bankruptcy last spring, GM under new management has committed to repaying its $6.7 billion in federal loan assistance and to return to publicly traded status so that taxpayers can cash in their equity in the firm.
71. Announcing plans to replace the U.S. federal government vehicle fleet with U.S.-made fuel-efficient vehicles.
72. Closing offshore tax havens. Negotiating with the Swiss government to permit U.S. government access to Swiss bank records of U.S. tax evaders and criminals.
73. Using the occasion of accepting only the third Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to a sitting U.S. president to assert that America and its allies have a moral right to use force in defence of freedom and liberty.
74. Honoring his campaign promise of outreach to Islam and its 1.6 billion adherents by giving a speech at a major Islamic forum, Cairo University, in which Obama dwelt on common values among religions. And giving a televised address directed at the Iranian people, in which he venerated Persian traditions while not wavering from America’s opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran.
75. Signing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
76. Phasing out the Camp X-Ray detention center at Guantanamo Bay, failing to meet his self-imposed deadline of doing so within his first year in office but reducing the detainee population to about two dozen people after successfully deporting many of them. (The camp's peak population was more than 700 detainees.) The camp finally will be closed pending an easing of domestic opposition to resettling the most hard-core detainee cases on U.S. soil. This includes not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) opposition in the president’s home state of Illinois, where Washington purchased an unused prison for the remaining detainees.
77. Putting a cap on his top advisors’ pay, cutting the maximum pay to $100,000.
78. Returning funds authorized for refurbishment of the White House and his private living quarters. The Obamas paid for living-quarters redecoration out of their own pockets.
79. Acknowledging and apologizing for his mistakes. Taking personal responsibility in public for setbacks, rather than allowing White House leaks in which others are blamed.
80. Meeting with everyday Americans at lunch counters and diners in the Midwest while developing a new job-creation policy. Wandering alone through Arlington National Cemetery before a “war council” later that day during the rethinking of his Afghan policy.
81. Installing a swing set and jungle gym for his daughters outside the Oval Office to keep an eye on them. Not sure how Malia and Sasha feel being under their father’s constant watchful eye.
82. Honoring his promise to get Malia and Sasha a puppy. Pretty sure that went over big.
Sources: PolitiFact.com; J.E. Robertson; Robert P. Watson, Ph.D., Coordinator of American Studies, Lynn University.
What Obama has not done, at least not yet.
1.Put most of America’s 15 million unemployed people back to work. In one of the cruelties of capitalism, full employment is a “lagging indicator,” always the last stage in an economic recovery. Employers without fail wait for two and sometimes three quarters of resumed economic growth, and a burgeoning order book, before calling back laid-off workers. In the meantime, Obama has taken unprecedented steps to stimulate the economy and soften the blow for citizens in distress. (See above.)
Progressive economists argue that Obama’s $789-billion stimulus was insufficient. The critics on this point include Nobel laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank. I agree with them. Trouble is – and here’s where the Nobel laureates need a refresher course in civics – Obama scored a remarkable coup in prizing $789 billion from Capitol Hill, which was not going to give him a penny more.
The GOP, of course, would have preferred no stimulus spending (it voted as a bloc against the stimulus), in which case the U.S. would still be in recession. The GOP also opposed the Bush-Obama rescue of the banking system, even if leaving it to collapse would have triggered a second Great Depression. And it opposed the auto-industry bailout, which would killed one of America’s iconic industries and would have thrown hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work in the midst of a recession.
2. Advanced the Middle East peace process. It’s hard to remember a time when the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and a Hamas-controlled Palestinian parliament, were less inclined to talk peace. Nonetheless, Obama has made time in a crowded first year to visit the region. His administration is engaged in background negotiations with both sides. And Obama soon after his nomination dispatched George Mitchell, former majority leader in the U.S. Senate and influential in bringing both sides together in a successful resolution of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to the Middle East as a full-time envoy.
3. “Connected the dots” on national security. The so-called “Christmas Day bomber” is a reminder that America’s 22 official intel agencies and its network of embassies and consulates still do not share information so that patterns of terrorist behavior can be adequately tracked. Obama read the riot act to his national security team after the Christmas Day incident, saying, “I will never fault you for not having sufficient information. But I will not accept having the information and not sharing it.”
4. Obama quite likely will not realize his signature domestic policy of universal health care. This must be counted as a significant failure of his administration. He will join about a dozen former presidents in chasing this rainbow, although he will have come closer than any of them in achieving for Americans what citizens of every other industrial nation have enjoyed for generations – in the case of Britain’s National Health System, for 64 years. It does not follow that had Obama taken a different tack he would have succeeded. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who in 1993-94 presented Congress with a fait accompli that she blithely expected it to approve, Obama took the opposite course and respected Congress to draft the legislation with a minimum of White House input. Thus it was difficult for Obama to “stump” for the proposed reforms – although he repeatedly did – because the provisions discussed by the five House and Senate committees laboring on the reform kept changing throughout last year. The GOP members of both chambers were resolutely obstructionist, of course. And conservative “blue-dog” members of the president’s own party were flies in the ointment. In the end, a contingent of progressive House members, at this writing, have vowed not hold their noses and pass the Senate version of the bill unchanged, because it lacks all the bells and whistles of the already-passed House version. Thus progressive Dems will scuttle any chance of Obama signing into law the foundation of a healthcare reform that can later be improved upon – as in the case of Social Security, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and LBJ’s Medicare legislation in 1965, all of which were a disappointment to progressives initially but were later vastly improved with incremental improvements. Even the disappointing Senate bill that the progressives refuse to vote for would do the three things Obama asked for: provide coverage for all Americans as a right and not a privilege of citizenship (the cornerstone principle that alone would represent the most significant social-welfare advance in more than four decades); an end to abusive private-insurer practices; and a reduction in healthcare costs that threaten the nation’s solvency. Obama surely could have taken an approach more certain of victory. It’s just that after watching the often ugly process for a year, and thinking back on the efforts of previous administrations, I can’t think of what that approach might have been.
5. Obama has retained the right to use many of the same anti-terrorism methods of the previous administration that rightly offend human-rights advocates. These include the rendition of detainees to other nations known to embrace torture. This would be the one major issue on which I can’t defend Obama.
6. Appoint more women. If there was a frat-house sensibility in the previous president’s inner sanctum, this one has a male locker-room feel. It’s not evident in Obama’s cabinet, with strong personalities Hillary Clinton at State, former governor Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services, and Lisa Jackson at the EPA, among others. But among the president’s closest advisors, in the White House, there is a conspicuous dearth of women.
7. Appoint a more credible economic team. Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers were poor choices as treasury secretary and chief economic advisor, respectively. To much embarrassment, Bill Clinton rejected his first two choices as attorney general because they hadn’t made payroll taxes payments on certain household staff. When Geithner, early on, was revealed to have skipped certain tax obligations, he should have withdrawn or been forced to withdraw his name from consideration. Worse, he was head of the New York Fed, with responsibility to oversee Wall Street, at the height of its recklessness. If Obama blundered in waiting so long to speak out against Wall Street excesses and its role in the economic calamity, Geithner’s counsel has much to do with that. So does that of Summers, the late-Clinton-era treasury secretary who championed the Congressional GOP’s bright idea to revoke the Glass-Steagall Act, in 1999. In their White House tenure to date, Geithner has been rolled by committee chairs on the Hill who simply don’t respect him, and the abrasive and arrogant Summers – who resigned under pressure as president of Harvard over alleged sexist remarks – is just the opposite of Obama in dismissing out of hand the views of others. As it happens, the most respected member of the White House economic team is a woman (see above), Christina Romer, head of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, whose even temperament makes her one of the few safe choices on the team to hit the luncheon and Sunday-morning talking-heads circuit to explain the administration’s policies. Finally, Ben Bernanke’s time was up; Obama should not have nominated the free-marketer for a second term at the Federal Reserve Board. Yes, he has liberal economists like the aforementioned Krugman in his corner for having used imaginative, unorthodox means to rescue the banking system. But Bernanke, an acolyte of predecessor Alan Greenspan, himself an acolyte of Ayn Rand (the latter literally sat cross-legged at the Great Woman’s feet as she pontificated on the virtues of Objectivism), did not see the signs of looming, epic crisis on the horizon and is too much in thrall to the free-market’s ability to correct itself without intervention. One of the very few areas in which this administration finds bipartisanship is in the disfavor in which Bernanke is held by Capital Hill solons on both sides of the aisle.
7. Obama hasn’t taken Wall Street to the woodshed. It’s not in this president’s character to be gratuitously populist. He would prefer to work within the system. (Which is why, though he has said he prefers a single-payer healthcare system, political realities dictate that he tailor his reforms to the existing system of private insurers.) What exactly would Main Street like on this score? To hang the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America from lampposts? Possibly. At least they’d like their rescue money back, and Obama is endeavoring to do just that with a $117-billion tax on their profits over the next decade. And he has just given Congress the most sweeping set of proposed financial-market reforms since FDR to prevent another 2008 meltdown and resulting recession. That’s about as radical as FDR got, and already Obama is taking heavy flak from the right for proposing it.
8. Made a convincing case for the Afghan mission. The "Christmas Day bomber" hails from Nigeria and was trained by al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Afghanistan is no more the "central front in the war on terror," as Obama calls it, than Iraq was in Bush's view. Al-Qaeda has cells in more than 60 nations, including the U.S. and Canada. The September 11, 2001 tragedy was largely planned in Hamburg. The Karzai government is rife with corruption, and that's the natural order of things in a lawless country that has never known centralized government, where for centuries power has been diffused among tribal warlords. American, Canadian and other troop-contributing nations in Afghanistan are regarded locally as an unwelcome occupying force, their presence a convenient recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden. A successful occupation of the country, by the standards of counter-insurgency specialist Gen. David Petraeus, would require half a million troops. The current level of about 100,000 or so non-Afghan troops in the country is not sustainable, due to popular opposition to the Afghan mission in most of the troop-contributing nations. The central front in the war on terror is the scattered reports of suspected terrorist activity reported by citizens, police and intel agencies worldwide, drawn together in a central clearinghouse to determine which are "actionable."