10/01/2012 07:55 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Do Promises Matter Anymore? Countdown Day 36

WASHINGTON -- In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was full of promise -- 508 of them to be precise. He was the harbinger of hope in the last dark months of the George W. Bush years.

But with just six weeks to go until Election Day 2012, President Obama has made few new promises and is not repeating many of the original ones. By PolitiFact's accounting, he has delivered on 38 percent of them -- a lousy shooting percentage in the NBA.

Instead, Obama is selling himself based on what he isn't: Mitt Romney. And rather than trying to convince voters that great days surely lie ahead -- a tough sell to a skeptical electorate -- he often offers a litany of reduced expectations, grim economic realism and rueful lamentations about the gridlock in Washington that he, in his innocence, did not expect. His slogan, "Forward," can sound less like an invitation to a glorious Elysium and more like a military command on a bloody battlefield.

The candidate who won on the high-octane power of optimism is now running on the cautious notion that the future ain't what it used to be.

The message, rarely overtly expressed, is that we are facing a tough grind (in terms of tax increases, slow job growth and entitlement cutbacks), and it's better to have a compassionate, user-friendly communitarian in the Oval Office than a wealthy, spreadsheet-and-shredder CEO who was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

The president now leads in this war of attrition and lowered sights.

Despite what the polls say, though, it is not clear the Obama strategy will hold up all the way to Election Day. There are three inherent risks: Voters prefer campaigns of dreams to those of realism. A chance, admittedly slight, remains that Romney will find his voice and a message at the last minute. And voters may yet choose to take one last look at the details of the president's record.

What they will find is that the Obama that is often isn't the Obama that wanted to be. This is not an observation confined to the Rush Limbaugh right; many on the progressive left have said the same thing.

That's where the past promises come in -- and the question of whether they mean much in our promiscuously promissory age.

Only once in any direct and sharp way has the president been confronted with tough questions about a failed promise. When Univision news anchors asked him why he had not won comprehensive immigration reform, or even pushed for it, Obama seemed both surprised and confused that he had been pressed on such an obvious point. The answer he gave -- that the pressures in Congress were just too daunting -- was less than convincing.

The president has kept promises No. 1 and No. 2: He calmly led the fight to bring the United States back from the brink of economic catastrophe (including a workable bailout of the auto industry), and he got a version of a national health care system passed and, as it turned out, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But he hasn't come close to reducing unemployment to the levels his aides envisioned and predicted, poverty is at an all-time high, and the annual deficit has certainly not been cut in half.

Here's a short list of other, more specific promises compiled by PolitiFact:

• Establish a mortgage foreclosure prevention fund. (Deemed a "colossal failure" by a special inspector general.)

• Close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. (Punted.)

• Create a cap-and-trade system with interim goals to reduce global warming. (Punted.)

• Sign the Employee Free Choice Act, making it easier to unionize. (Couldn't get a must-pass bill through a Democratic Congress.)

• Allow importation of prescription drugs. (Bargained away to big pharma.)

• Sign the Freedom of Choice Act, guaranteeing abortion rights against state legislative encroachments. (Never pushed it.)

• Include a "public option" in the health care plan. (Punted.)

• Bring in the dawn of a new bipartisan era. (Not.)

To that list, I would add one more failure: Public schools in general are not noticeably improving the education of students.

Perhaps lists such as these don't matter anymore. After all, most focus on expansions of federal power that the president was not able to achieve -- failures that Romney has no standing to criticize, given his conversion to Tea Party libertarianism.

It is true that Republicans have opposed the president at every turn, even though their truculence also exposed Obama's lack of deal-making skills.

As for Romney, he isn't making many specific promises, and the ones he is making tend to be of the negative variety: abolishing Obamacare, abolishing the Dodd-Frank bank regulation law, cutting tax rates, abolishing unspecified tax loopholes. His "promise" to "create 12 million jobs" is a laughable non-event, since that is the number of jobs the economy is predicted to produce over the next four years regardless of who is president.

But maybe voters, as cynical as they are these days, have just given up on expecting elected leaders to deliver on their promises. If that is so, how will voters decide whether a president deserves reelection -- or a challenger deserves to replace him?

It's not a promising development.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.


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