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Promises, promises: President Obama curbs ambition this time

By Calvin Woodward

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17 2013 8:16 a.m. MST

Despite a relentless workload ahead, President Barack Obama is lighter on his feet in one sense as he opens his second term.

Associated Press

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Editor's note: An occasional look at government promises and how well they are kept.

WASHINGTON — Despite a relentless workload ahead, President Barack Obama is lighter on his feet in one sense as he opens his second term. Gone are the hundreds of promises of the past. He's toting carry-ons instead of heavy cargo this time.

Obama's first presidential campaign and the years that followed were distinguished by an overflowing ambition, converted into a checklist of things he swore to do. The list was striking not only for its length but its breadth, ranging from tidbits in forgotten corners of public policy to grand — even grandiose — pronouncements worthy of Moses.

He made a sweeping vow to calm the rise of the seas. And a literally down-in-the-weeds pledge to aid the sage grouse and its grassy habitat.

Obama worked his way through that stockpile, breaking dozens of his promises along the way and keeping many more of them.

Thanks to the messy business of governing, the president's record on promises is not cut and dried. Some of his most notable flops, for example, contained seeds of future success.

Failing to achieve a promised first-term overhaul of immigration law, Obama took stopgap executive action to help as many as 1.7 million younger illegal immigrants stay in the country. Now, after an election marked by Hispanic clout, he finds the political landscape more amenable to trying again.

Climate change legislation was another prominent broken pledge, but he came at the issue piecemeal, imposing the first-ever regulations on heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming, setting tough controls on coal-fired power plants and greatly increasing fuel efficiency for cars and trucks.

Likewise, not all of his successes are all they were cracked up to be.

Yes, he achieved the transformational health care law, putting the U.S. on a path to universal coverage. But it remains in question whether costs will come under control as he said they would — and as the name of the Affordable Care Act implies. Obama swore a typical family's premium would drop by up to $2,500 a year by the end of his first term, but they've continued to rise. That's a broken promise tucked inside a kept one.

Yes, Obama is extricating the U.S. from wars as he promised before and after he became president, but what instabilities does he leave behind? And how many troops? His vow that, in 2014, "our longest war will be over" is on track to be true in the main, yet thousands of troops might stay indefinitely in Afghanistan as a residual force once the bulk of the 66,000 now there are gone.

His promise to raise taxes on the rich finally came to be at the bitter end of the last Congress, during the debate to avoid going off the "fiscal cliff" of severe spending cuts and steep tax increases that would have started automatically absent an agreement. He also made good on his vow to hold rates steady for everyone else. (The fine print: Households making $250,000 to $400,000 are off the hook from the higher rates. Obama had said he'd tax them more, too.)

As for falling sensationally short, the bitterness in Congress on display in that debate, and so many others, was to be swept away as part of the change Obama promised to bring to Washington's ways and manners. Candidate Obama vowed to turn the page from "ugly partisanship," only to concede recently that such a transformation was beyond his reach because "you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

If Obama can't be held responsible for cantankerous lawmakers, though, it's worth remembering that not all of the change he promised to bring to governance was centered on Congress. He also vowed to restrain the power of Washington's special interests by barring lobbyists from serving in his administration, only to backtrack by issuing waivers and other exceptions to those new rules. That was strictly an "inside" job.

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