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Promises, Promises

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed deep concern and skepticism over the negotiations concerning the future of Iran's nuclear program. President Obama has assured Netanyahu that the United States would never tolerate Iran having nuclear weapons. (It is less clear what Obama's position is with respect to Iran retaining the capacity to create nuclear weapons.) If you were in Netanyahu's shoes, would Obama's reassurance help you sleep better at night?

After almost five years in office, President Obama has a remarkable, and growing, list of broken promises. His presidency has been characterized by "say one thing, do another" moments to such an extent that his credibility at home and abroad is now seriously diminished. This pattern began before he took office.

In his 2008 campaign, Senator Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to decline federal matching funds for the general election. He accepted matching funds during the primary season and pledged to do so in the general election campaign. But when he realized that he could raise tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars above the federal spending limits, he broke his pledge. Senator John McCain, by contrast, took federal matching funds and followed the requisite spending limits. Obama outspent him significantly in the general election campaign.

After his victory, Obama promised to fix the broken presidential primary system once in office. He did nothing.

When it came time for his 2012 re-election campaign, President Obama urged his supporters not to create and fund Super PACs. When he saw that Republicans -- chastened by their 2008 campaign experience -- were raising massive amounts of Super PAC money, he dropped his opposition and gave Democratic-leaning Super PACs a green light.

Candidate Obama vowed to close Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Guantanamo remains open.
At a March 5, 2009, White House health care summit, President Obama opened the gathering in the East Room by stating that his first goal was to rein in health-care costs and then to expand access. I was in the audience and was extremely impressed that the new president had the correct priorities. Expanding access on top of a structurally flawed system would only drive up costs.

Instead, President Obama outsourced his legislative efforts to Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He signed into law the "Affordable Care Act" that did the precise opposite from his earlier pledge: it expanded access first and then included cost-containment approaches that remain doubtful.

On June 4, 2009, President Obama gave a major foreign policy speech, "A New Beginning," at Cairo University's Major Reception Hall. While intended to signal a repositioning of the United States in the Arab World -- and, in particular, to provide a clear contrast with the prior administration's war policies in the region -- the speech also raised expectations, especially among Arab youth. In Iran, shortly thereafter, thousands of young protestors were disappointed when Obama failed to support their concerns about the election irregularities associated with the 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There have been the repeated Obama assurances while the Iranian government gets closer and closer to a nonreversible nuclear capability, and then we had the infamous August 26, 2012, pledge (now called the "red line in the sand" pledge) about chemical-weapons use by President Assad in Syria, followed by months of dithering about assisting the Syrian opposition leaders. Our ally France, by contrast, has been both clear and consistent with respect to its views on Iran and Syria.

President Obama's current political crisis stems from his at least 29 public statements to the effect that if you like your current health care plan or your doctors, you can keep them under the "Affordable Care Act."

Not so, it turns out. Unlike many others, this broken promise hit home sharply. Cuba, Egypt, Iran, and Syria are a long way away, and since most people don't make campaign contributions, they don't get overly worked up about reforming the system.

Health care, by contrast, is deeply personal. Sleepless nights in Trenton and Racine mean more to Americans right now than sleepless nights in Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

Presidents need flexibility when governing, but a pattern of saying one thing and doing the opposite undermines the credibility and trust necessary for effective presidential leadership.
Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan warned air traffic controllers not to strike in clear violation of federal law. When they ignored his words, he promptly fired them. When the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed and its archives became public, we learned that Reagan's decisive action made a strong and lasting impression on the Soviets about what kind of leader Reagan was.

President George H.W. Bush famously promised not to raise taxes. Breaking his 1988 "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge cost him reelection in 1992.

One of T.S. Eliot's characters, Sweeney, remarks:

"I gotta use words when I talk to you
But if you understand or if you don't
That's nothing to me and nothing to you
We all gotta do what we gotta do."

Americans do not often reward broken promises, especially when a broken promise touches them directly. Words matter. So do promises.

Charles Kolb is President of the French-American Foundation-United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.