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Ahead of State of the Union, rating Obama's past promises

Larry Downing / Reuters

Regardless of who Republicans eventually select as their party's standard bearer for November's election, Obama's record will be central to the political argument.

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night for his State of the Union speech, his re-election bid will be front and center. But for all the forward-looking posturing and positioning, the decisions voters make will be as much about how the country fared during the president’s first term as what he proposes for a second.   

Regardless of who Republicans eventually select as their party’s standard bearer for November’s election, Obama’s record will be central to the political argument.  His opponents charge that his policies and actions have been overbearing and outside the lines of federal responsibility. Other critics, many of whom line-up with the president ideologically, contend he has been too timid and overly disposed to compromise.  

But those who supported Obama’s agenda in 2008 have many reasons to vote for him this November.

Sometime this spring, the Supreme Court will determine whether Obama’s signature accomplishment – the law which expands and fundamentally redesigns health insurance in the United States – will survive. If the Supreme Court permits the law to stand, Obama will have accomplished much of what he pledged to do in his Feb. 10, 2007 speech in Springfield, Ill., when he formally launched his presidential campaign: “We w ill have universal health care in America by the end of the next president's first term.”

One can quibble about his use of the word “universal” and the timing – the Obama plan won’t be fully implemented until 2018. 

And according to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2019 the law will still leave 23 million residents uninsured, about one-third of whom would be illegal immigrants. Still, the major overhaul of the nation’s health care system stands as one of the largest legislative achievements in decades. 

In a few cases Obama has disappointed some of his supporters – for example, he hasn’t closed Guantanamo Navy Base as a prison camp for al-Qaida members and other terrorist suspects, as he pledged to do in an executive order he signed on the day be took office in 2009. But this was largely to due to Republican opposition.

Here’s an accounting of the reasons Obama supporters have to vote for him again – and some promises he hasn’t been able to keep.

The economy 

When judging any president’s record, one difficulty is choosing a fair baseline to evaluate economic performance. How much of a recovery, or a recession, is due to a president’s actions? How much is due to long-term changes in patterns of international trade, in the American and foreign labor forces, in technology and in other factors which transcend a president’s four-year term?

When Obama signed the $825 billion economic stimulus plan into law in February of 2009, there were 141.7 million Americans working and 12.5 million unemployed.By February of 2011, two years after the stimulus was enacted, there were 139.5 million Americans working and 13.7 million unemployed.

David Plouffe, a senior adviser to President Obama, talks to TODAY's Ann Curry about the 2012 presidential race and previews President Obama's State of the Union address.

Between the month he signed the stimulus into law and February of 2011, the unemployment rate went from 8.1 percent to 8.9 percent. These numbers explain Republican criticism of the stimulus as a squandering of taxpayer money that didn’t result in increased employment. 

In recent months, the jobs data has improved but there were still almost one million fewer people employed last month than when Obama signed the stimulus into law.

Obama’s critics on the left, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, argue the stimulus was too small, while Obama’s defenders say it prevented a far worse economic slump. 

The Obama administration also decided to spend $80 billion to keep General Motors and Chrysler alive, and as of last November, according to the Congressional Budget Office, $35 billion of that money had been repaid to the Treasury, $7 billion had been written off as a loss, and $37 billion was still outstanding. The two car companies are still operating; in fact, GM reported a few days ago that it has reclaimed its title as the world’s largest seller of automobiles.

Obama himself said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 2008, “We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was president when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000 like it has under George Bush.” 

Clinton served for eight years and Obama has served so far for only three, but the Census reported that median household income, adjusted for inflation, declined by 2.3 percent between 2009 and 2010. This was part of longer-term trend that predates Obama’s presidency: since 2007, median household income has declined 6.4 percent and is 7.1 percent below the peak ($53,252) that occurred in 1999.

The Census also reports that the poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent—up from 14.3 percent in 2009, the third consecutive increase in the poverty rate. 

When Obama launched his candidacy in Springfield in 2007, he portrayed these economic woes as Bush Era problems, about which the Republicans were in denial: “For the past six years, we've been told that our mounting debts don't matter. We've been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion.” 

One sector of the economy where Obama appears to have fallen short is housing. In his first debate with John McCain in 2008, he said: “We've got to make sure that we're helping homeowners, because the root problem here has to do with the foreclosures that are taking place all across the country.”

Clifford Rossi, a housing policy expert at the University of Maryland business school said, “As well intended as the Administration appears to be with trying to assist underwater and struggling homeowners, if I were grading their performance thus far it would be a C-.” 

He added, “Their various attempts to address loan modifications have been ad hoc and missed the mark entirely of what needs to be accomplished... We are five years into a housing crisis unlike anything we've seen since the Great Depression and we have few policy solutions to show for it.” 

In the face of Republican opposition, Obama has been unable to fulfill his promise to enact legislation reducing use of tax deductions by upper-income taxpayers and raising income tax rates for those with incomes over $250,000. But as part of the health care law he did increase Medicare taxes on upper-income people. The law also other imposes other major tax increases including the penalty on people who choose to go without insurance and the tax on high-cost “Cadillac" health plans which takes effect in 2018.

Obama promised in 2008 to cut taxes for “95 percent of working families.” The 2009 stimulus included more than $300 billion in tax cuts and credits — including the Making Work Pay Credit, a big tax cut for workers earning less than $75,000 and couples making less than $150,000 a year. Making Work Pay has now been replaced by the payroll tax cut.

But tax cutting and spending on the stimulus as well as other spending, has helped enlarge the national debt – which has grown from $10.6 trillion on the day Obama took office to $15.2 trillion. 

Environmental policy

In his 2007 Springfield speech Obama said, “We can set up a system for capping greenhouse gases. We can turn this crisis of global warming into a moment of opportunity for innovation and job creation … .” 

He said in another campaign speech in 2008 that after his election “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment … when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

When he first took office, Obama proposed to enact a cap-and-trade bill and to use revenues to reduce deficits and pay for new spending initiatives. 

Although the House passed a cap-and-trade greenhouse gas bill in 2009, Obama along with Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., Sen. Joe Lieberman, I- Conn., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., the three Senate leaders on the issue, failed to come up with the compromises needed to pass a bill. The effort died in the summer of 2010.

The Obama administration has made grants and loans to alternative energy companies, but it was embarrassed when $535 million in taxpayer money was lost in a loan to Solyndra, the California solar company that went bankrupt last September.

Social and labor policy 
Obama shored up the liberal wing of the Supreme Court by appointing Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to replace retiring Justices David Souter and John Paul Stevens. 

And he pleased gay rights advocates when he ended the legal defense of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Obama also ended the Clinton Era “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy on gays serving in the military. 

He also made recess appointments to National Labor Relations Board, which helped fulfill a campaign pledge he made in 2007 to help union organizers “lift up this country’s middle class again.”

Foreign policy
As Obama promised to do in 2008, he has withdrawn American troops from Iraq. He has also ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden and American-born Moslem cleric and al-Qaida organizer Anwar al-Awlaki. He has continued and expanded the use of drones to kill alleged terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere. 

All this is in line with his 2007 Springfield speech in which he pledged to “confront the terrorists with everything we’ve got” and “to track down terrorists with a stronger military.” 

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett joins Morning Joe to discuss the president's Tuesday State of the Union address. Jarrett says the president will discuss what it takes to have sustained growth and a strong economy in the U.S. along with growing U.S. manufacturing.

On Afghanistan, Obama said in his first 2008 debate with McCain, “I think we need more troops. I've been saying that for over a year now. And I think that we have to do it as quickly as possible, because it's been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better … I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan” – in other words up to about 15,000 additional troops.

When Obama took office there were 32,000  troops in Afghanistan. In March 2009 he announced he’d send an extra 4,000. 

On Dec. 1, 2009, he increased U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan by another 30,000, bringing the total to 100,000. “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. 

The tone of politics and ethics in government

Many voters were drawn to Obama in 2008 by his rhetoric denouncing “the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial … our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America.”

He lashed out at “the cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.” 

And on the night he won the Iowa caucuses, he said that he and his supporters had “beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism … .” 

In his inaugural address he said, “We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

There’s no objective way to measure whether Obama has “beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism” or ended “pretty grievances” and “recriminations.”  

But the Washington reform groups Common Cause and the Center for Public Integrity have accused him of falling short of his anti-lobbyist rhetoric. 

Obama signed an executive order on his first day in office which imposed limits on former lobbyists and others who worked in his administration. An ex-lobbyist working in the administration could not for two years after his appointment be involved in any policy matter on which he’d lobbied in the two years before his appointment, or work in a federal agency that he had lobbied within the two years before being appointed.

But the executive order provided a waiver from the rules if it was deemed in the national interest. Former Clinton administration Defense Department official and former Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn was given a waiver to serve as deputy secretary of defense. And the New York Times reported in 2010 that White House officials regularly met with lobbyists at the Caribou Coffee shop down the street from the White House, avoiding disclosure on the public White House visitors’ log.

Common Cause president Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman, chided Obama last year for accepting campaign funds for his 2012 run which were raised by “bundlers” working for Washington lobbying firms.