How Barack Obama's presidency has come undone

He held out hope and promise, but at last count nearly 120 of those promises have gone unfulfilled, Neil Macdonald reports. Barack Obama himself must be wondering where it all went sideways.

He held out hope and promise, but so many of those promises went unfulfilled

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Queensland in Brisbane on Nov. 15, 2014, in advance of the G20 Summit. Is hope gone, or just replaced by governing? (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Barack Obama must  must  spend time daydreaming nowadays about the old rallies, the ferocious belief of his original volunteers, the millions of tiny, happily given donations that added up to such record-breaking sums, the ecstatic stupefaction he was once able to provoke just by walking out onto a stage and standing there, the way he did that January day in 2008 when a  languid Caroline Kennedy, backed by her uncle Teddy, endorsed him and not Hillary, and called him the future of his party and of America, expressing something this nation loves to believe, that even the most Gordian political knot can be cleaved with a single moral stroke by a good person, and that that person was him, and that his promise to bridge America's ideological rift was credible, and that even as wars were going calamitously wrong and the culmination of financial rot and corruption was wiping away Americans' wealth on a scale never seen by most voters, he, Barack Obama, could see the nation through it by inspiring hope, and hope, according to American myth, conquers all.

That was just about seven years ago. Anyone who was there will never forget it.

The original Obama movement was so rapturous that stating the obvious — you can't eat hope and the rhetoric was mostly empty — seemed small-minded and a cynical snub to those people who clearly felt they were about to see real change, especially black voters who were feeling the kind of fierce emotions that most of us could never understand.

"We are the ones we've been waiting for," he'd tell the crowds. Whatever that meant, it sounded good.

Today, though, Obama must — must — at least be contemplating the possibility that he has failed.

Six years after he assumed power, nearly 120 of his promises remain unfulfilled, according to the Pulitzer-prize-winning website Politifact.

Some of them are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things — like his pledge to defy Turkey, America's NATO ally, and recognize the Armenian genocide, or to resume human missions to the moon, or double the size of the Peace Corps.

Caroline Kennedy, now U.S. ambassador to Japan, sits next to Barack Obama as they meet with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo in April 2014. (Reuters)

But others are betrayals of the mission, for lack of a better term, that Obama promised to carry into the White House.

For example, he promised to "hold accountable" the financial firms whose criminal negligence — let's dispense with euphemisms — nearly destroyed the economy in 2008.

Obama's attorney-general eventually decided not to charge a single Wall Street executive, fearing the "collateral consequences" might be too hard on shareholders and office workers who might lose their jobs if a corporate collapse resulted.

Obama also promised a foreclosure prevention fund to protect homeowners threatened by Wall Street's behaviour, and a law allowing judges to modify people's mortgages as the vultures descended. Never happened.

Obama has not enacted protections for striking workers, or made it easier to unionize, or required employers to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave per year, all of which he promised.

He has not raised the federal minimum wage.

The list goes on

He has done nothing — and this one is huge — to accommodate the 11 million immigrants who legally shouldn't be here but are, and who are feeding America's craving for cheap labour.

In fact, federal authorities have deported more people under the first six years of Obama's watch than they did in the same period of George W. Bush's presidency.

He has not, as promised, allowed Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from other developed countries, notably Canada.

He has not enacted a hard cap on carbon emissions (merely stated another promise to take effect, maybe, years after he is gone). He has not met targets he set himself for renewable energy.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping drink a toast on Nov. 12, 2014, shortly after agreeing to an ambitious plan to limit greenhouse gases. But the impact won't take place for years yet. (Greg Baker / Associated Press)

He has not limited the ridiculous subsidies enjoyed by big agribusiness at the expense of taxpayers and to the misery of farmers in smaller countries.

He didn't change, as promised, the military commissions used by the Bush administration to judge so-called enemy combatants, commissions that circumvented the Geneva Convention and, in some cases, the due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

He has neither closed the Guantanamo Bay prison camp nor extended habeas corpus rights to enemy fighters, as promised.

His promise to oblige American companies to publicly divulge breaches of their customers' personal data became utterly risible when a former CIA contractor, Edward Snowden, exposed the fact that his administration not only scoops up personal data on an industrial scale, but legally gags the country's biggest technology companies from discussing it.

He's unleashed government prosecutors on news organizations that dare to report secrets.

He tried to extricate America from Bush's disastrous war in Iraq, only to plunge back in when it became evident Iraq's American-trained and equipped army is almost useless.

He is now wading into the Syrian conflict, fighting the extremists of ISIS by aligning America with some groups that are barely more palatable.

Executive orders

It is true that Obama did keep some promises, and there are explanations for some of the ones he broke.

Reality intruded on his worldview once he took power. And Republicans have systematically obstructed his efforts at reform.

But then, one of Obama's most surreal promises six years ago was to "turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington, so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people."

House Speaker John Boehner listens to Barack Obama at the White House in November 2014. Systemic Republican obstruction is one of the reasons Obama's legislative achievements are so few. (Reuters)

As ridiculous as that sounds now, he did promise to make it happen.

His great achievement was Obamacare, passed in the early days of his presidency, before voters gave Congress back to the Republicans.

But even that fell short of the promised Canadian-style public option. And the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear another legal challenge to Obamacare.

Now, as a lame duck president facing a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Obama is promising a robust burst of executive power to thwart his congressional opponents, who, ironically, greatly expanded executive power when one of theirs, George W. Bush, held the White House.

He clearly intends to implement some immigration reform with just the presidential pen.

But executive orders last only until the next chief executive decides to change them.

As the president sits in his office, reflecting on his lousy approval ratings and his party's loss of the Senate this month, I have a modest suggestion: Make another official visit to Canada.

Polls continue to suggest Canadians admire Obama more than any of their national leaders, and perhaps more than almost any other country.

He could hold big rallies; it would be just like the old days, except that the adoring crowds wouldn't be able to vote for him, which doesn't matter, because he isn't running again.

Maybe we're the ones he's been waiting for.  

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.