WASHINGTON, D.C. — Read Barack Obama’s lips: no new promises.
Not now, at least.
It’s a long way from May to November, but so far the president’s campaign speeches have been strikingly free of new pledges.
The president’s early pitch to voters is heavy on promises kept and promises still in the works. (Never mind about those pesky promises broken.)
A typical Obama campaign speech includes a “change is…” refrain that showcases the greatest hits of his first term:
• Change is rescuing the auto industry.
• Change is health care reform.
• Change is raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars.
• Change is ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
• Change is the Lilly Ledbetter law to ensure women get pay equal to men.
And so on.
What does it say that one of Obama’s biggest applause lines is still his reference to the Ledbetter law — signed on his ninth day in office?
“His issue is performance, not promises,” says Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution. “His message is that he’s done a lot to help people, and he doesn’t want to over-promise for the second term.”
Obama’s springtime script is a big change from his campaign of four years ago. But it fits the playbook for incumbent presidents seeking re-election.
Job One, particularly in the age of attack ads, is to define your opponent. Obama is largely leaving that chore to campaign surrogates and early advertising for now.
Job Two is to remind voters of your own accomplishments, and how you’ll build on them. This is where Obama is right now.
His campaign’s new “Forward” ad showcases the end of the war in Iraq as “a promise kept by a president who understands America’s promise.”
His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has been quick to mock the “forward” theme, saying: “Forward, what, over the cliff?”
Obama needs to counter such GOP arguments that he hasn’t done enough — and what he’s done has hurt more than helped — before he adds any new promises to the mix.
So far, his political focus has been on fundraising, but that’s about to change. On Saturday he holds his first two official re-election rallies, in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia.
University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan, an expert on the presidency, says Obama is taking victory laps on foreign policy and national security successes such as the end of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden because Republicans have been so successful at running down his achievements.
First lady Michelle Obama, in her campaign speeches, has been coupling her husband’s message of promises kept with a plea for patience.
“The reality is that real change is slow,” she said at a recent fundraiser. “And it never happens all at once.”
Obama, too, says that for all the progress he seeks to highlight, much more remains to be done.
Three times, he told the group at a fundraiser late last month that he won’t be satisfied until more has been done — to create jobs, to improve the country’s education system, to bring troops home from Afghanistan.
“So I’m going to work harder than I did in 2008, and if you guys are willing to join me, then we’re going to have four more years to be able to finish what we started,” he said.
It’s a different tone from Obama’s 2008 campaign, with its blizzard of ambitious promises and “yes-we-can” optimism.
Politifact.com compiled a list of more than 500 promises that Obama made during that campaign, and gives this status report: 35 percent kept, 11 percent compromised, 13 percent broken, 12 percent stalled and 27 percent in the works.
If re-elected, Obama is sure to have plenty of big carry-over items from his first term to-do list: a still-unfulfilled promise for immigration overhaul, the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and elusive efforts to achieve greater tax fairness among them.
Plus, the health care overhaul that was the signature achievement of Obama’s first term could well be back on the agenda if it fails to survive a challenge pending before the Supreme Court.
Unsurprisingly, Obama makes precious little mention of promises broken, such as his failure to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Other failures, such as his inability to repeal the Bush tax cuts for higher-income Americans, are brought up to paint Republicans as obstructionists.
“Time after time, the Republicans have gotten together and they’ve said no,” Obama told construction workers last week.
What new promises Obama adds to his list in 2012 will depend on the arc of the campaign.
An incumbent who’s cruising to re-election doesn’t need to sweeten the pot much.
Ronald Reagan’s re-election race against Democrat Walter Mondale, says Buchanan, was easy enough that “there was no need to make promises that might be uncomfortable to keep.” Bill Clinton, in his smooth re-election race against Republican Bob Dole, dangled a string of small-bore proposals such as school uniforms and extended school days.
As for Obama, says Buchanan, “They have stuff to wheel out. They’ll do so if they need to.”