Fewer than half of Barack Obama’s biggest promises as president have been kept, according to a Guardian audit published on the eve of his final State of the Union address.
The analysis of six preceding state of the union speeches, two inaugurals and Obama’s first address to Congress in 2009 reveals a steady decline in both the number of policy pledges made by him, and their success rate, during an ambitious presidency marred by fierce battles with lawmakers.
The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, acknowledged this week that Tuesday’s address will be unusual in avoiding many of these concrete proposals for the final year in office and would focus instead on what needs to change in the political climate before his vision for the country can be realised by a successor.
“He gathered us together late last year and he said, look, he doesn’t want this to be your traditional policy speech that outlined a series of proposals,” McDonough told ABC on Sunday. “Rather, he wanted to step back and take a look at the future of this country, the challenges we’re going through.”
While advisers are still hopeful of achieving some reform in 2016 through executive action, a review of 27 key policy areas over the course of Obama’s nine previous speeches to Congress reveals just how much his election promise of “hope and change” has been stymied by deadlock with Republicans.
Progress on immigration, gun control, tax, and overseas troop withdrawals has been slowest, while Obama’s successes in tackling the economy, healthcare reform, climate change and diplomacy have proved far wider than many critics expected.
A mixed record on Wall Street, civil liberties, and counter-terrorism arguably reflects the difficult political compromises faced at home and abroad.
While any assessment of the overall success of Obama’s two terms in office requires subjective judgments, the annual State of the Union provides a unique window into the policy priorities that the president and his speechwriters have chosen to publicise in any given year.
And as the president prepares tonight for arguably his final big set-piece speech setting America’s direction of travel, it is a moment to reflect on his legacy.
Many themes return frequently in the 132 separate pledges identified and assessed by the Guardian spanning his two terms. Tax reforms designed to encourage American multinationals to invest at home and simplify the tax code have been a feature of every Obama State of the Union, for example. Others have been presented with steadily less conviction over time: appearing first as bold predictions, and eventually only as requests or suggestions to Congress.
But the analysis attempts to assess the ultimate success of each firm promise in the year it is made counting setbacks and achievements. A score between zero and five has been awarded, with zero for virtually no progress, five for almost complete success and a sliding scale in between.
Such analysis reveals a marked difference between the soaring rhetoric at the start of each term in the office, and the more successful and pragmatic speeches he made when faced with the more focused economic challenge of dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis.
The most ambitious speech was the 2009 inauguration address, delivered on the steps of Capitol Hill before a record crowd of some 1.8 million, which contained at least 20 major pledges on everything from education to the economy.
It was also Obama’s most optimistic: a time for him to “proclaim an end to petty grievances, recriminations and dogma that strangle our politics” and fulfil the promise of bipartisan compromise on which he campaigned.
“The challenges we face are real,” acknowledged Obama. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: they will be met.”
The language was at its most poetic then too, with Obama signalling his promise to reduce inequality, for example, more elliptically than in later speeches: “The nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous”.
But subsequent events suggest much of this optimism that Washington could be united behind his progressive agenda was misplaced, and Guardian assessment of the pledges suggests an average score of 2.4 out of 5, a success rate of barely half.
More progress was made when the president delivered his second big speech to the nation a month later, in an occasion many saw as his first State of the Union, even though technically it was just an address to Congress.
In this, and the 2010 state of the union to follow, Obama focused heavily on fixing the economy: promising job growth and recovery in the housing and stock markets. Critically, Obama also used the Democratic majority in both the House and Senate to drive through his healthcare reform – perhaps his most lasting achievement, that leaves 2010 as a high watermark for deliverable public pledges.
By contrast, the challenges of governing after Republicans took back control of the House in 2010 were beginning to catch up with the president by the 2012 election year state of the union – noticeable for 13 big pledges, and ultimately an average success rate of just 2.2 on the 0 to 5 scale.
More significantly, foreign policy setbacks have weighed heavily on the assessment of Obama’s achievements, particularly his promise to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring all US troops home. Though temporarily successful, both policies have had to be reversed, as the rise of Isis and resilience of the Taliban show the president’s broader counter-terrorism achievements to be worryingly fragile.
Obama has frequently acknowledged that his ambitious agenda at home and abroad was always likely to see setbacks, a fact borne out by the average success rate across all nine speeches of 2.2 out of 5.
“I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went,” he recalled in 2010. “But remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.”
But few of his supporters would have imagined that a candidate who fought so hard against the legacy of George W Bush would be sending US troops back to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2016, or still struggling to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre.
On the other hand, historians may view the turnaround in the US economy – including the longest period of sustained job growth on record – and the dramatic reductions in the uninsured under Obamacare as more than compensating for uncontrollable events abroad and the stubbornness of opposition in Congress.
Trump fears his base will turn on him if he flips and calls for nationwide mask guidelines: CNN
On CNN Saturday, analyst Ron Brownstein outlined the key reason President Donald Trump is struggling to adapt his message to proper public health guidance on the coronavirus pandemic.
"Ron, there is a retail trade group that has asked President Trump to institute federal, nationwide mask guidelines at stores across the country as the country continues to re-open," said anchor Alex Marquardt. "Experts are saying that masks could save thousands of lives in the coming months. Do you see a scenario in which — any chance in which he would issue that?"
"I think the short answer is no, and for a revealing reason," said Brownstein. "He is in a trap of his own construction. On coronavirus, we talk all the time about how President Trump's base is bonded to him, immovably. He's also bonded to the base in the other direction, that he is very reluctant to get out crosswise with a base that includes the kind of people that showed up at the Michigan capital to protest lockdown without wearing masks and waving Confederate flags and carrying automatic weapons."
Trump and the GOP have become the party of the dead
There are few morbid topics subject to greater speculation than the religious loyalty of President Donald Trump's "base." Why an alarmingly large amount of Americans refuse even to entertain any criticism of Trump deserves scrutiny from political scientists, psychologists and perhaps horror novelists working in the school of Edgar Allan Poe.
This article first appeared in Salon.
What is abundantly clear is that no matter who votes for Trump, he and the Republican Party on the national level have no interest in governing on the behalf of living human beings — with the exception of ensuring that a tiny minority of billionaires and multimillionaires enlarge their investment portfolios. Trump evinces no concern for Americans dying of the coronavirus, racist violence or any other malady or injustice. He demonstrates no regard for health care professionals courageously trying to save their patients from dying, and appears cruelly indifferent to the struggles of millions of workers whose livelihoods have been destroyed by COVID-19. Needless to say, Trump also shows contempt for Black Lives Matter, immigrants and anyone who opposes his re-election, which at this moment (and throughout his presidency) is more than half of the American public.
As coronavirus seizes the state, Florida hospitals are in panic mode
This article first appeared in Salon.
There are 47,663 hospital beds in the state right now with 11,782 available (meaning a remaining capacity of 19.82 percent) and a total staffed bed capacity of 59,445, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration's Hospital Bed Capacity Dashboard. The state Department of Health also reported on Friday that, out of 95,300 individuals who received coronavirus test results over the course of the previous day, 11,433 tested positive for COVID-19 (all but 90 of whom were Florida residents), meaning that more than 12 percent of the new cases had positive test results. The state also reported 93 new deaths due to COVID-19. (Salon reached out to the Florida Department of Health for comment on this story.)