On Jan. 12, President Obama will stride to the podium in the Capitol and give his final State of the Union address. Administration officials say he'll deliver a "non-traditional" speech — not a laundry list of policies but a vision for the country. Still, issues such as improving the economy, closing the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, defeating the Islamic State and gun control are sure to be featured.
Those issues are among scores of others that Obama has raised in his six previous State of the Union speeches and his February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. So whatever happened to those promises? Were they kept or broken, passed or thwarted? The Washington Examiner pored over those seven speeches and checked on the progress of selected pledges and goals.
Victories are few and far between. Many promises were dead on delivery, while others stalled, victims of the animosity between Obama and congressional Republicans. Some failures could be considered beyond Obama's control, yet critics believe they speak to the chief executive's lack of both leadership or willingness to compromise.
STIMULUS AND JOBS
2009: "Over the next two years, [the stimulus] plan will save or create 3.5 million jobs."
Reality: The U.S. would continue losing payroll jobs for another year after the passage of the stimulus, before gaining 13.3 million jobs over a slow recovery that is still ongoing. Obama's use of the phrase "save or create" made the claim unfalsifiable, given that employment could have fallen even further without the plan. A report released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in February 2015 calculated that the law resulted in 1.6 million to 8.4 million job-years (a year of employment for one person), while a White House report placed the impact at 6 million job-years.
Conservative critics of government spending, however, have dismissed those estimates as relying on the same assumptions about stimulus spending on jobs that were used in formulating Obama's promise.
2009: "In order to save our children from a future of debt, we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. But let me be perfectly clear, because I know you'll hear the same old claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime."
Reality: On taking office, President Obama promised to undo the Bush tax cuts for top earners. In the "fiscal cliff" deal struck to begin 2013, Congress did roll back the tax cuts for families making over $450,000. Fewer than 1 percent of tax returns had income over that cut-off in 2013, according to IRS data. Meanwhile, Obama did not undo the Bush tax cuts for those with income under $250,000 annually.
Obama has also enacted a number of tax cuts for low and middle-income families, but critics say the president's promise of no hikes for those earning under $250,000 is untrue because other new laws have increased the take from the middle class. Examples? The Obamacare mandate taxes people for lacking health insurance, and a new tax on cigarettes was introduced in 2009. Both hit middle-class families, although neither is specifically tied to income.
2012: "Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes."
Reality: Despite his success in raising taxes on high earners, Obama has not been able to implement the Buffett Rule. The top 400 highest income tax returns had an average tax rate of under 17 percent in 2012, according to the IRS, and Obama has not changed that.
WALL STREET REFORM
2009: "[W]e will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times. And when we learn that a major bank has serious problems, we will hold accountable those responsible, force the necessary adjustments, provide the support to clean up their balance sheets and assure the continuity of a strong, viable institution that can serve our people and our economy."
Reality: Whether Obama's financial reform, contained in the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, could deal with a large bank failure without a taxpayer bailout is debatable. Treasury and Federal Reserve regulators refuse to say they've ended the period of "too big to fail," although they claim they have the tools necessary to do so. A 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office studying whether the big banks receive a benefit from the perception that the government would bail them out was inconclusive.
A similar analysis from the International Monetary Fund found that big American banks benefit to the tune of billions of dollars annually in lower borrowing costs. Bank regulators rejected the "living wills" of 11 big banks last summer, saying they were inadequate to deal with bankruptcy without taxpayer help.
2009: "We have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and refinance their mortgages ... It will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values. Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped bring about. In fact, the average family who re-finances today can save nearly $2,000 per year on their mortgage."
Reality: Various versions of the Home Affordable Refinance Program, launched in early 2009, have allowed 3.3 million people with mortgages near or exceeding the value of their homes to refinance into lower-rate loans, saving on average more than $3,000 annually, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency and its inspector general. The program was widely considered a success, unlike the related effort to help homeowners lower the principal on their loans.
2012: "I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low rates."
2013: "Right now, there's a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today's rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before, so what are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill."
Reality: Obama's plan to extend the mortgage refinancing program to even more borrowers was opposed by Republicans worried about its potential cost and did not pass Congress.
2010: "So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support 2 million jobs in America."
2011: "To help businesses sell more products abroad, we set a goal of doubling our exports by 2014."
2012: "With the bipartisan trade agreements we signed into law, we're on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule."
Reality: Obama's promise to double exports fell far short, and is further from reality now after manufacturers were hit hard this year by a stronger dollar. When Obama set the goal in the first quarter of 2010, the country was exporting $1.75 trillion worth of goods and services a year. The corresponding number in the first quarter of 2015 was $2.26 trillion. Even before the rising dollar crimped exports, they were never near double what they were in 2010, even before adjusting for inflation.
2010: "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years."
2011: "So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president."
Reality: Obama has kept this promise, probably better than he wanted. A deal to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 capped discretionary spending. Non-defense discretionary spending appropriated by Congress, which excludes entitlements such as Social Security, fell from $650 billion in 2011 to about $560 billion in 2015, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
The deficit fell by well over $400 billion, from $1.3 trillion in 2011 to $440 billion in 2015. Discretionary spending, which has fallen as a share of the economy for decades, is expected to hit 6.5 percent in 2015. In the early 1960s, the norm was more like 12 percent, but that ratio has been in long-term decline. Except for a brief spike with the 2009 stimulus bill, discretionary spending has been in long-term decline relative to the size of the economy.
2009: "This budget creates new incentives for teacher performance, pathways for advancement and rewards for success. We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools."
Reality: Most of these incentives were implemented through Race to the Top, a multi-billion dollar competitive grant program that rewarded states for adopting Obama-favored education reforms. Although mostly unknown at the time, adoption of Common Core standards, which became highly controversial, was part of the incentive structure.
2010: "To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let's take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants."
Reality: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act passed the then-Democratically-held House but gained no traction in the Senate. It had called to index the maximum Pell Grant to inflation. That didn't happen, but the maximum level has risen by $225 to $5,775 per year today. That's much higher than the $4,705 per year maximum Republicans sought in 2011.
2011: "Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids."
Reality: No Child Left Behind was not replaced until last month. When it was, reforms were all about rejecting federal power over education and giving it back to states in a partial rebuke to Race to the Top's top-down reforms.
2012: "I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."
Reality: Today, 21 states require students to stay in school until 18, and two more are phasing in that age level. That number is largely unchanged since Obama's address.
2013: "So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America."
Reality: Several bills were introduced in Congress to give state and local agencies grants to provide universal preschool, but none received a vote in committee.
2013: "Tomorrow, my administration will release a new 'College Scorecard' that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria [sic], where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."
Reality: Obama also proposed a college ratings system, which was eventually scrapped after heavy opposition from college administrators. He had planned to connect public funding to those ratings. The scorecard was eventually re-released in September 2015, but less as a scorecard and more as a vast database of information.
2014: "We'll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."
Reality: Although there have been no significant federal policy changes, Obama launched the "Invest in U.S." campaign to raise private and public funds for preschool education. As of December 2015, $340 million had been raised.
2015: "I'm sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college to zero."
Reality: America's College Promise Act was introduced in the House in July 2015 to appropriate $80 billion over 10 years for the program. Despite gaining 77 Democratic cosponsors, the bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, where it has yet to receive a vote.
2010: "More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will continue to skyrocket. That's why I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation."
Reality: Obama did create the commission, and appointed former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to head it.
The commission came out with a final report in December 2010 and then ... nothing. Congress and the president didn't take up the plan's recommendations.
The main reason was that neither side had the political will to make drastic changes. Republicans were unhappy with several provisions such as an increase in the gas tax, and Democrats disliked steep cuts to entitlements such as Medicare.
Congress did do one of the recommendations: eliminate the sustainable growth rate formula that would have paid doctors much less under Medicare.
2013: "We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital; they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive."
Reality: Obamacare started the effort to shift the traditional Medicare payment model away from a fee-for-service, such as paying a doctor for every test or for number of days spent in a hospital. Instead, there are new metrics based on quality of care, such as penalizing a doctor if he does unnecessary tests.
However, implementation of this new payment model is still underway.
Already there have been hiccups. For example, an Obamacare program penalizes hospitals for too many patient readmissions. Critics charge that the program unfairly targets facilities that treat many low-income residents, forcing such hospitals to pay for readmissions that aren't their fault.
A report from the American Hospital Association said the administration doesn't adjust for socioeconomic factors. "Research shows that economically disadvantaged patients often have limited access to services and resources that can help support their recovery," the report said.
2015: "I'm launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier."
Reality: The National Institutes of Health has begun a campaign to get 1 million or more Americans to volunteer their health data over many years to help fuel the development of new treatments for disease. Instead of the current method of a one-size-fits-all way to treat cancer, precision medicine would use a person's genes to get them the treatment that is right for them.
Congress just gave about $2 billion more in funding for NIH over current levels in the $1.1 trillion spending package approved late last year. The bill includes about $130 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative.
2009: "I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture."
Reality: Obama signed an executive order shortly after taking office allowing only interrogation tactics approved by the Army, but critics say the president still hasn't done enough to condemn the use of torture and prosecute those who participated in the torture of prisoners of war under President George W. Bush's administration. Last year, Amnesty International sent a letter to the Justice Department asking Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate those who may have broken international humanitarian laws and "bring the suspected perpetrators to justice."
2010: "As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August."
Reality: The U.S. military formally ended its participation in the Iraq War at the end of 2011, but the rise of the Islamic State has forced American service members back to the country. The U.S. has about 3,500 forces in Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers and conduct counterterrorism raids.
2011: "This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."
2012: "From this position of strength, we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer."
2013: "This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
2014: When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over.
2015: Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain.
Reality: Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan for the majority of 2016 with a presence of at least a couple thousand remaining through the remainder of Obama's presidency. Obama announced late last year a revision to his drawdown plan, in which the U.S. presence will drop to 5,500 sometime in late 2016.
2012: "I'm proposing a Veterans Jobs Corps that will help our communities hire veterans as cops and firefighters, so that America is as strong as those who defend her."
Reality: A Democratic bill to create a Veterans Jobs Corps was blocked in the Senate in September by Republicans who argued that it violated the Budget Control Act by creating a program that added to the deficit. Democrats accused the GOP of shelving the measure simply because it would have reflected positively on the Obama administration on the eve of the president's reelection.
2014: "We'll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they've earned, and our wounded warriors receive the healthcare, including the mental healthcare, that they need. We'll keep working to help all our veterans translate their skills and leadership into jobs here at home."
Reality: Obama's promise to reduce the backlog of benefits applications at the Department of Veterans Affairs preceded a period of intense scrutiny for the VA, coming less than three months before the national wait-time scandal was exposed. In April of that year, whistleblowers revealed 110 VA facilities around the country had created fake patient waiting lists to cover up long delays in care.
Nearly 850,000 veterans are still in the backlog waiting to be enrolled in the VA's benefits system, a process that must be completed before they can get in line to make an appointment with a doctor. That number is unchanged from 2012.
2009: "Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years."
Reality: The Energy Information Administration shows renewable forms of electricity about doubled between 2009 and 2012.
2009: "We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country."
Reality: Building new transmission lines is difficult despite landmark new regulations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and federal programs to site new cross-border lines from Canada. Several new transmission lines have been proposed and the need is growing. About 15 lines were completed in 2012, but projects that traverse several states remain rare and difficult to site, industry says.
2009: "We will invest 15 billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America."
Reality: The administration spent billions through the Recovery Act to spur clean energy. But policy priorities changed after 2009. The Energy Department budget has shifted from vehicle technologies toward advancing renewables and cleaner electricity resources. Clean coal budgets have also waned. The flagship clean coal program, Futuregen, has been canceled.
2010: "To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America."
Reality: No comprehensive energy or climate bills have passed, with the exception of the 2015 omnibus spending bill that included a five-year extension of renewable energy tax credits and the repeal of the 40-year-old oil export ban. The president had wanted a permanent extension of wind and solar credits, and lifting the oil export ban was never a priority for him. On climate change, the president has shifted to enacting climate rules using executive orders and the Environmental Protection Agency. No new nuclear reactors have been built.
2011: "With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015."
Reality: Although nearly every major automaker offers a model of electric car in 2015, the total fleet within America is about 290,000. There are about a 1 million electric cars on the road worldwide. Biofuels make up about 10 percent of the nation's fuel supply. Fracking, which has made America the largest shale oil producer, has done the most to reduce imports of oil.
2013: "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take ... to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.
"So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. I'm also issuing a new goal for America: Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years."
Reality: The president issued his Climate Action Plan later that year. The Energy Security Trust does not exist, and is no longer a priority. Weatherization programs to make homes more energy efficient struggle for money.
2014: "That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air."
Reality: The EPA has finalized new regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from new, modified and existing power plants.
2013: "Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun."
Reality: Though he initially had support for more curbs on gun sales, Obama lost it swiftly and the public increasingly disagreed with such efforts. Only 49 percent said in November 2013 they supported stricter gun control laws (down from 55 percent in November), while 50 percent said they opposed it, according to a CNN/ORC International survey.
2014: "Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors and police officers all over this country who say, 'We are not afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls or schools like Sandy Hook."
Reality: Americans appear uninterested in the president's efforts, as recent terrorist attacks in Paris and California turn voters against restrictions on firearms.
A majority is now opposed to an assault weapons ban, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll in December.
"Americans are more fearful about another terrorist attack than at any time since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001," the Times noted. "What has shifted notably are attitudes on gun control. Only 44 percent of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons, 19 percentage points lower than after the mass shooting in Tucson in 2011. And while 51 percent favor stricter gun control in general, that is down from 58 percent in October," the newspaper added.
A majority (51 percent) did say, however, that they believe that existing gun laws should be stricter. They are split (50/48) over whether those laws would actually prevent another mass shooting event.
2011: "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. Within the next five years, we'll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans."
Reality: The White House announced in March 2015 that the goal of 98 percent access to wireless broadband had been achieved, citing data from the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. But that was using a lower standard for what constitutes high-speed access than is used by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC reported in February that 85 percent of the country had access according to its definition.
As for high-speed rail, only California has fully committed to a project paid for out of tax revenue, and it is controversial. Gov. Jerry Brown backs it, but Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom opposes it, citing evidence that it will cost more than its $68 billion budget and won't be ready by 2022, as promised. A majority of Californians oppose the project. Privately funded projects are underway in Florida and Texas.
2012: "In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."
Reality: On March 22, Obama signed an executive order to speed up federal permits for infrastructure projects. The order created a steering committee of the heads of major agencies to oversee the matter. It released its report in May 2014 and issued a guidance memo in September outlining the "metrics for tracking the permitting and environmental review of infrastructure projects," thus creating another layer of bureaucracy.
2013: "Tonight, I propose a 'Fix-It-First' program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country."
Reality: The U.S. has more than 61,000 creaky bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration. On Dec. 4, Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion transportation funding bill, which gives states block grants, allowing them to decide on what to spend the money.
2013: "I'm announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I'm asking two long-time experts in the field, who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Gov. Romney's campaign, to lead it."
Reality: After a six-month review, the commission made several non-controversial recommendations in 2014. It suggested expanding online voter registration, sharing voter-registration information, replacing and updating electronic-voting equipment and increasing early-voting options. Those suggestions were made to states and local governments and are difficult to track.
2015: "We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many, and that on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American."
Reality: Neither the Republican House nor Senate Judiciary Committee chairmen will schedule markups for pending bipartisan bills that would address the Supreme Court's decision striking down a key portion of the law. Both Chairmen Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa say the rest of the law stands, and that it and the Justice Department adequately protect minority voters' rights.
2013: "Real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy."
Reality: The average wait for processing of a Form N-400 application for naturalization is five months, unchanged from 2013.
2010: "This week, I'll be addressing a meeting of the House Republicans. I'd like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can't wait."
Reality: Republicans have complained for the last few years about their inability to reach Obama on key issues. "Hope springs eternal," a House leadership aide told the Washington Examiner.
2015: "And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger."
Reality: "During times of divided government, in this case a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, the way to get things done ... is to focus on those areas where there is clear bipartisan support," a senior Senate GOP aide. "Unfortunately, this president has never shown much interest in negotiations with congressional Republicans on bipartisan legislation. It would be hard to find a more ideologically driven commander in chief than President Obama."
T. Becket Adams, Nicole Duran, Sean Higgins, Pete Kasperowicz, Robert King, Jacqueline Klimas, Joseph Lawler, Jason Russell, John Siciliano and Sarah Westwood