Obama's Policy Promises Reviewed

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E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times discuss President Obama's promises to keep in the New Year. They look at the promises Obama made on issues such as health care, bipartisanship and national security, and where things stand now.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And we begin this hour with a look at politics and promises - specifically, presidential promises. Almost one year ago, President Barack Obama entered office with a vow to shake up business as usual in Washington and an ambitious agenda: passing a health care overhaul, fixing an ailing economy, improving America's image overseas and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not make - be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: That was President Obama on Inauguration Day. Historically, presidents have a day of pomp and celebration, and then they have to get down to the business of trying to keep all those promises they made in their campaigns. But Mr. Obama still has many promises to keep. He also has many miles to go before he sleeps. It's still early in his term.

But we're going to spend some time measuring his progress with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Happy New Year to both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Happy New Year.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post, Brookings Institution): Happy New Year. Happy new decade.

NORRIS: Well, you know, as we begin this conversation, I want to look back at the previous decade and the close of the decade, and I'm wondering if President Obama entered the presidency with particularly steep challenges, since he talked so much about hope and change in his campaign.

E.J., does he enter this presidency with heightened expectations about his ability to meet all those promises?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think he entered the presidency with many people thinking he had miraculous powers, and that's very hard for anybody to live up to. He's somebody who was elected, just as you say, on these soaring promises of change and hope, but it was combined with a pragmatic style and a cool demeanor. And that will always make him, I think, someone very difficult for people to get a handle on. But I think once people got over the fact that no, he doesn't have miraculous powers, I think he has governed very much as he said he would in the campaign - this pledge to make change, but to use fairly traditional means if that was the way to get it.

So he may have a little less - sort of get a few less points than he did before on inspiration, but I think he is, broadly, who he promised to be.

NORRIS: Traditional means - but he came to Washington talking about really shaking up the system, and I want to actually tick through a few specific areas and talk about the promises he made and his progress in trying to actually meet those goals. David, because national security dominates the headlines right now, let's begin there. Some of the president's goals were fairly specific: ending the involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are a bit more opaque: making America safer in the face of terrorism. What will it take for him to credibly claim that he's made progress on both fronts?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think he's basically continued the Bush policies, closed Guantanamo - or at least promised to, not actually closed it, and will move some of the people to a prison, maybe, in Illinois. But it's basically continuity on the national security front, kept the Department of Homeland Security on Afghanistan, basically taking the strategy that was left to him by the Bush administration and now expanded it in Iraq, basically taking the SOFA, the agreement we had - that the Bush administration had to wrap down that war, accelerated it. So it's an evolutionary change, but I wouldn't say it's a dramatic change on national security.

NORRIS: E.J., on Guantanamo, specifically, does he change the timeline or shift the goal there? Because he's obviously not going to meet that one-year deadline.

Mr. DIONNE: They are saying that they won't shift the goal, and I think they are too locked in. Guantanamo has sort of come to stand for all of the changes he would make in the Bush security policies, where he would respect civil liberties more, where he would make us look better in the eyes in the world. But, clearly, his timeline is going to slip on that.

NORRIS: OK. As we tick through another promise, improving America's reputation overseas and its relationship with both allies and adversaries, what will it take for him to make the case that America has a new and perhaps more effective relationship with countries like Iran or Pakistan - in the news today, again, because of the suicide bombing at a volleyball game there?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, in Iran, I think Iran has made it very difficult on itself. I mean, he's going to have to shift his policy. He's gotten tougher and tougher in speaking about human rights and speaking in support of the opposition movement there. In Pakistan, there has been some progress where the Pakistanis really have become more aggressive against sort of Taliban-like, al-Qaida-like elements there. But that has always been the place that was going to be the biggest challenge of his presidency, and I think it still is.

NORRIS: And he can, you think at this point, make the claim that he's changed the temperature there?

Mr. DIONNE: Go ahead, David.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he tried something. They said we'll be open to Iran. We're going to try to talk to them. A lot of them - a lot of the people within the administration knew that would fail, anyway. But they thought, OK, we'll give this gesture. After it fails, we'll have stronger position from which to try to impose sanctions. And that's essentially where we are. The policy's essentially failed. They knew it would fail. Now they're going to try impose sanctions. And to me, it's the crucial issue, because the day Neda was shot was the day that regime lost its legitimacy. And they're in a race between getting nuclear weapons and going through total collapse. And handling those two processes is going to be the most explosive relationship I think they face.

NORRIS: Now, we can't talk about presidential promises without talking about the health care overhaul. You both have been fairly optimistic that the president is going to meet his goal there. He might not do it in the timeline he - that he specifically laid out, but you think he's going to get there. Are you both still confident about this?

Mr. DIONNE: Yes.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes.

Mr. DIONNE: I think there's no doubt there's going to be a health care bill. And it's going to largely look like what he promised in the campaign. He's got two problems. One is he promised he wouldn't tax insurance benefits. He attacked McCain on that. He's going to end up taxing insurance benefits. The other, he said no mandate. He attacked Hillary Clinton on that. He's got some explaining to do. But broadly, this is going to be a big thing to celebrate.

NORRIS: Now, on the issue that actually helped propel him past John McCain in the campaign, the economy, he pledged to fix the economy and to take on all those titans on Wall Street. There are signs of recovery in the economy, but do voters feel like the president has actually made good on those promises? David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, they don't give much credit for it, but he does deserve credit for this. I think the tail end of the Bush administration and the Obama administration really took us out of what was a complete freefall and got us to some sad equilibrium. And they deserve credit for that. The stimulus could have been designed better. But it did some good.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, and I agree with David on that. I do think he has developed a reputation - and his team has - of being too close to Wall Street. People are still very upset that all this money went into the banks. There seems to be no change in the behavior on the part of the titans of finance. And I think you're going to see a little bit more of a populist Obama, even though that's not always a natural fit for him, in the coming year. Because not only his base, but also a lot middle-income people say, wait a minute. Something is unfair out there. And I think he's going to start speaking to that unfairness.

NORRIS: We only have a few seconds, but is there an issue or a goal that maybe falls in the not-done-yet category or the been-there-haven't-finished-with-it-yet category that perhaps we should just call out before we say goodbye?

Mr. DIONNE: Education reform, I think, is going to be a huge issue in this year and in the coming years.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I agree. Race to the Top is the single most successful program he's done. It's changing education reform in state after state.

NORRIS: But we don't hear so much about it.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. It's the - Rahm Emanuel calls it the invisible revolution, but it's really having bigger effects than almost anything else he's done, save health care.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you, and Happy New Year.

Mr. BROOKS: Same to you.

Mr. DIONNE: Happy New Year.

NORRIS: Here's to a bountiful 2010.

That's E.J. Dionne with the Washington Post and David Brooks with the New York Times.

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