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6 months into office, Obama's agenda hits speed bumps

President Barack Obama is running into resistance, including from Democrats, on key legislation on health care and climate change. He’s under pressure to compromise on both bills, but if he does, he runs the risk of alienating key allies.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama is running into resistance, including from Democrats, on key legislation on health care and climate change. He’s under pressure to compromise on both bills, but if he does, he runs the risk of alienating key allies.


As a candidate, Barack Obama made it all sound so easy. He would cut taxes for the middle class, reform health care, make government more transparent, protect the rights of gay people, close the Guantanamo Bay detention center … and the list went on.

Our PolitiFact Web site is tracking 515 campaign promises on those issues and many others ranging from insulating homes to building more sidewalks. Obama got off to such a fast start that we've rated 32 as Promise Kept and 78 others as In the Works.

But now, six months into his presidency, Obama has hit turbulence. Several promises have recently earned a Stalled rating, while others have gotten a Promise Broken.

In his first few months in office, Obama kept many promises by tucking them inside the economic stimulus bill, and he fulfilled others with simple presidential muscle. All he had to do was sign an executive order or direct a Cabinet secretary to take action and he had a Promise Kept.

But he's largely done with the easy promises and, with Congress now considering his major initiatives on health care and climate change, Obama faces critics and skeptics at every turn. His plan to overhaul health care has unsettled many lawmakers, including a fair number of Democrats. The outlook for his cap-and-trade climate bill isn't any better. It narrowly passed the House but faces a difficult future in the Senate. He's under pressure to compromise on both bills, but if he does, he runs the risk of alienating key allies.

"Campaigning is so different from governing, because with campaigning, everything is black and white," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland. "When you get to governing, you have to look at the long term, and you have to compromise, and there is no black and white. You have to figure out how to get to your particular goals, and how you can compromise and still maintain the integrity of your goals."

New presidents typically get a honeymoon. They enjoy high approval ratings and a brief outbreak of goodwill (or at least, less bad will) with the opposition party. They move quickly to pass as much of their agenda as they can.

A honeymoon usually lasts about six or seven months, pollsters say. But after that, the inflated public approval ratings revert to what pollsters believe are their true levels.

"A new president hasn't done anything to upset people yet, so their popularity is higher," said Tracy Sulkin, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "When they take action, it's going to displease some people."

And it's not just action that can hurt a president's popularity — inaction can, too.

Two of Obama's Stalled ratings involve promises that were important to gay voters — his pledge to repeal the military "don't ask, don't tell" policy and his promise to push for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Gay rights groups have complained that Obama hasn't done enough in his first six months to fulfill the promises.

Obama addressed their complaints during a June 29 meeting at the White House.

"I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago. But I say this: We have made progress, and we will make more."

As a candidate, Obama emphasized his commitment to transparency. When he was battling Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he vowed that as president, he would hold open meetings on his health care proposal and televise them on C-SPAN. That was a dig at Clinton because she had held closed-door meetings on health care during her husband's presidency.

But once he got in office, Obama has held the same kind of closed-door meetings that Clinton did. So we've rated that one a Promise Broken.

For now, we've rated the 10 promises that make up Obama's health plan as In the Works. But the plan faces an uncertain future. With opposition growing this week, Obama has stepped up his efforts to push the legislation. He has a prime-time news conference scheduled for tonight (8 p.m., major networks).

The health care reform bill faces strong opposition in the Senate. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said Friday that health care could be Obama's "Waterloo," the famous battle that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.

John Rother, a top lobbyist for the AARP who has watched health care reform efforts since the Clinton administration, said Obama needs to be nimble to keep the plan alive.

"Congress has never been known for moving fast on anything that's very complicated, and this is one of the most complicated things it's every addressed," he said. "The Republican strategy is to kill it by slowing it down, so Obama needs to maintain momentum if he wants to get things done."

When Obama spoke to the gay rights advocates at the White House three weeks ago, his audience was focused on a few specific issues. But his words could also apply to other groups that are impatient for action.

"I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps," he said. "We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

Promise No. 177

Close the Guantanamo Bay detention center

The ruling: Within days of taking office, President Obama took steps to close the facility where hundreds of detainees from the war on terrorism are incarcerated. Concerned about where prisoners would go, Democrats refused to pay for shutting the prison.

Promise No. 293

Call for repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy

The ruling: In January, an Obama spokesman said "yes" when asked if the administration would repeal the Pentagon's policy on gays serving in the military. Now, Defense Secretary Gates said the issue has been set aside to deal with more pressing matters.

Promise No. 181

Restore habeas corpus for 'enemy combatants'

The ruling: Letting Guantanamo Bay prisoners challenge their detention in court was part of Obama's broad goal to change Bush policy. Now, Obama says some prisoners may be too dangerous to release even if they can't be tried.

6 months into office, Obama's agenda hits speed bumps 07/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:01pm]
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