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President Barack Obama swept into office in 2009 with t...
President Barack Obama swept into office in 2009 with the strongest electoral mandate in a generation, majorities in both houses of Congress and promises of dramatic change in Washington.
But that was no guarantee of success.
Four years later, many pledges from his campaign and early presidency remain unfulfilled -- some stalled, others seemingly put off indefinitely. A few, Obama just doesn't bother to mention anymore.
Obama enacted a landmark health care law, financial regulatory reform and a stimulus measure. But he himself has acknowledged falling short on goals ranging from slashing the deficit to overhauling immigration to closing the prison at Guant?namo.
Mitt Romney has tried to capitalize on many of the biggest unfulfilled promises, including by going after Obama during their first debate for failing on deficit reduction. The Republican nominee has another opportunity to press Obama Tuesday night at the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y. But some unmet goals, such as failing to shutter Gitmo, don't offer easy political points for Romney because he either favors the status quo or isn't offering specifics himself.
The White House argues that Obama's overall record of accomplishments is impressive, even robust, particularly given the economic meltdown he inherited nearly four years ago.
"Taking office at the depths of the worst economic downturn in generations, the president's policies helped America avoid another Great Depression and rescued the domestic auto industry, protecting one million American jobs," White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said. "In addition, he followed through on campaign promises to end the war in Iraq, take the fight to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, take out bin Laden, end 'don't ask, don't tell,' enact Wall Street reform so that big banks don't write their own rules and pass historic health care reform that will cut costs and expand access for millions of Americans."
Here is POLITICO's look at five of the biggest items on Obama's to-do list that never came to pass:
Cutting the deficit in half
"Today, I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office." -- Obama, Feb. 23, 2009
During the first presidential debate, Romney jumped on this promise. "You said you'd cut the deficit in half. It's now four years later. ... We still show trillion-dollar deficits every year. That doesn't get the job done," he said.
When Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office projected a deficit of $1.2 trillion that year. He made his cut-in-half pledge just six days after signing a $787 billion stimulus bill that increased the deficit even further. In fact, the promise was in some part a sop to conservative Democrats who voted for the stimulus but were nervous that the country could be headed to budgetary oblivion.
"There's no question the president made the promise and did not deliver on his promise," former Comptroller General David Walker said.
Obama says the reason he's fallen short is simple: The economic downturn was far worse than anyone first thought, driving up the cost of public assistance programs and lowering tax revenue.
"The recession turned out to be a lot deeper than any of us realized," he told Atlanta's WAGA-TV in February. "The die had been cast, but a lot of us didn't understand at that point how bad it was going to get."
Indeed, estimates of job losses and economic contraction became more severe in the months following Obama's promise. A few days after Obama spoke, the government estimated the economy shrank at a rate of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. In August 2009, the rate became 8.9 percent -- the worst single-quarter decline in more than 50 years.
Walker, who now runs a fiscal-responsibility group called the Comeback America Initiative, concedes the economy has been "slower in recovery" than many expected but faults Obama for a stimulus plan that was "not properly designed, not effectively implemented, oversold and underdelivered." He also says the president moved too slowly on his deficit-reduction pledge.
Under pressure from Republicans after a "grand bargain" failed, Obama finally put forward a plan to curb the deficit in September 2011. But it's vague about reining in entitlements. The proposal has languished amid disagreements over the pace of cuts and GOP resistance to new tax revenue.
"Guant?namo will be closed no later than one year from now."-- Obama, Jan. 22, 2009
Obama's failure to close the war-on-terror detention facility at Guant?namo Bay may be the most glaring broken promise of all -- one he made repeatedly during the campaign, doubled down on as president and then was simply unable to deliver.
Shutting the prison was a staple of candidate Obama's stump speech in 2008. He saw the pledge as a dramatic way to break with President George W. Bush's handling of the war on terror. Obama staged an Oval Office ceremony on his second full day in office to sign an executive order setting the closure in motion.
More than 3? years later, Gitmo is still open, and there's no prospect of it being closed anytime soon. In 2007, Romney talked of doubling the size of the island prison, but in this campaign, he's barely touched on the issue.
Advocates for closing the prison say Obama never fought as resistance swelled. Some say the key moment came in March 2010, when the White House retreated from a plan to bring the some of the most feared men at Guant?namo -- the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators -- to the U.S. for trial.
"Backing down so quickly in the face of not-very-organized political opposition -- that was really a turning point," said Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First. "That created an opening for the opposition to closing Guant?namo to jump in and see the president's will could be shaken."
Obama's only public speech on Gitmo as president was in May 2009. He's rarely mentioned it since, though the aide said the president still believes "it's very much in our national security interest to close Gitmo and will continue working to do so."
In the book "Kill Or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency," Daniel Klaidman writes that White House aides, including then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, blocked Attorney General Eric Holder from mounting a more robust media campaign to defend trials for the terror suspects on U.S. soil.
One White House aide blamed lawmakers on Capitol Hill for hamstringing Obama's plan. "Congress set up every possible barrier to prevent the closure of the prison," said the aide, who asked not to be named.
Civil rights advocates feel differently.
"The president did not do everything in his power to close Guant?namo. Even when his hands were tied by Congress, he didn't try to untie them," American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero told POLITICO. "Unlike other issues where the president stood up, like gay rights or abortion rights, there are no votes to be gained by closing Guant?namo. Identity politics and vote counting dumped this at the bottom of the pile."
"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." -- Obama, May 28, 2008
"I will make [comprehensive immigration reform] a top priority in my first year as president." -- Obama, July 8, 2008
This looked at one point like it could be one of the most politically potent of Obama's unmet promises. Not only did he do little to advance an immigration law overhaul during his first year in office, there's little indication the administration ever made a full-court press for one. In fact, the White House never even endorsed a comprehensive reform bill, just a vague framework.
Obama has conceded that his lack of success overhauling the immigration laws is a major disappointment. In an interview last month with Univision, he called it "my biggest failure so far." But he also sounded defensive on the issue, which he has argued had to be put aside during his first year because "emergency actions" were needed to combat the economic crisis.
"I'm not the head of the legislature; I'm not the head of the judiciary," he told Univision. "We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done. And so, I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn't get it done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done, 100 percent, when I was elected as president."
What Obama didn't mention: Other decisions may have made immigration reform harder to get through Congress. The way he pushed through his health care law angered Republicans and almost certainly contributed to GOP electoral gains in 2010 that essentially killed immigration reform.
And it's unclear why cap-and-trade climate change legislation -- which was kept on Obama's first-year agenda and also failed -- was deemed more urgent than immigration.
"Looking back, I don't think Democrats leaned into it hard enough, and I think Republicans stood in the way of any sort of movement," said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. "The administration could have introduced legislation, could have applied more pressure."
Polls indicate the key immigration-reform constituency of Latinos isn't holding a grudge: Obama is ahead of Romney by huge margins, including by 66 points in Arizona in the latest Latino Decisions/America's Voice poll.
Part of that is due to the tough line Romney took toward illegal immigrants during the GOP primary. But Obama also moved unilaterally to allow certain groups of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S., particularly those who arrived as children.
"They responded to political pressure with, I think, a very smart policy decision," Noorani said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has constantly prodded the White House for both legislation and executive action, told POLITICO he "pushed the president to push harder" but that Obama's steps to limit deportations are welcome.
"The president has the advantage of being on solid legal ground, firm moral ground and fertile political ground all at the same time," he said.
Reining in home foreclosures
"We will help between 7 [million] and 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can ... avoid foreclosure." -- Obama, Feb. 18, 2009
The wave of home foreclosures that helped launch the economic crisis has proven to be one of the most difficult challenges for Obama -- and one in which his team's actions have fallen far short of their goals.
Even as economic growth resumed, modest job growth returned and the stock market dramatically rebounded, the number of homes in or near foreclosure remained so large for most of Obama's term that it depressed housing prices and crushed the new housing industry.
The number of homes in the so-called "shadow inventory" -- homes in foreclosure or with delinquent mortgages -- rose steadily through Obama's first year in office to nearly 9 million in early 2010, according to a Morgan Stanley study. The backlog has since dropped by about a third.
Obama set public goals of reworking 3 million to 4 million loans and refinancing an additional 4 million to 5 million, said Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi. "In all likelihood, they'll fall short. A little over a million modifications will stick and our target [estimate] is 3 [million] to 4 million trial modifications. They've changed the goal posts there, so they may be able to hit it. ... Where they really fell short is on preventing foreclosures," Zandi said.
Obama has expressed frustration that the administration's measures to address the housing crisis didn't measure up, calling it a "big drag" on the rest of the economy.
"We've had to revamp our housing program several times to try to help people stay in their homes and try to start lifting home values up," the president said in a town hall meeting last year. "Of all the things we've done, that's probably been the area that's been most stubborn to us trying to solve the problem."
Zandi said Obama's effort to modify mortgages wasn't aggressive enough. "The mistake they made was it was based on carrots. ... There were no sticks, no cudgels to force institutions to participate," he said. "The program was too cute by half."
But the economist noted that the housing market has improved markedly in recent months and finally seems to have turned the corner.
"It was in freefall when [Obama] took over and they had to staunch the bleeding. Otherwise, everything would unravel," he said. "I think they succeeded in achieving that goal."
"We should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to ... an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." -- Obama, Sept. 23, 2010
Obama set a bold goal in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, suggesting that within a year, he could help achieve the kind of Middle East peace deal that eluded many U.S. presidents.
No such deal came to pass. In fact, many analysts say the outlook for such an agreement is now as bleak as it has been in many years, despite a huge investment of time by the president and his administration early on.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to "advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration" and not to "wait until the waning days of my presidency" as he suggested some of his predecessors had done.
Obama did come out of the gate quickly on the issue -- perhaps too quickly. Two days after taking office, he named former Sen. George Mitchell as an envoy and dispatched him to the region within a week. Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend and expand a freeze of Jewish settlement activity. The gambit ultimately failed, and soured relations between the Israeli leader and Obama that have never recovered.
"He identified the wrong issue to pick a fight with the Israelis on," said former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. Miller attributes the error to Obama's "belief that the combination of his own transformative personality and the lack of credibility of his predecessor on this issue would somehow magically open up a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where almost all his predecessors had failed."
On many issues, White House officials can point to incremental progress even if Obama fell short of his goal. Not on this one. Even Obama allies say the strategy he pursued never got traction, and many say it was flawed from the start.
"I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work, and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said last year. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse."
In a speech last week, Romney declared that Obama "failed" on Mideast peace and also alienated U.S. friends in the region. But the GOP hopeful's vow to "begin anew" is tempered by secretly taped remarks he made in May, suggesting a peace deal was all but impossible.
Obama has conceded his effort fell flat, but he's implied blame lies with the Israelis and Palestinians -- not his strategy.
"I have not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted," he said in July to WJLA-TV, which is owned by Allbritton Communications, the parent company of POLITICO. "It's something we focused on very early. But the truth of the matter is that the parties, they've got to want it as well."
Obama's aides insist his inability to broker Mideast peace doesn't amount to a broken promise.
"This is an extraordinarily complex problem that has existed for decades," a White House official told POLITICO. "You're holding the president to a rather high standard to count continued tension between the Israelis and Palestinians as a broken promise."
Indeed, Obama's U.N. comments may have been something less than an ironclad pledge to find peace within a year. But the one-year goal he chose to set out had consequences. When Palestinians -- over Obama's objections -- pressed their statehood claim at the U.N. last year, they cited the failure to reach a deal during Obama's prescribed window as a reason why their bid should be approved.
Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Obama doesn't deserve blame for failing to get a peace accord -- but he does deserve it for stoking anger on both sides.
"He made a situation that was patently bad, worse," Miller said, "and damaged American credibility by overpromising things [he] could not deliver."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the state Rep. Luis Gutierrez represents. He is from Illinois.