Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Congress has limited bandwidth.
“Was it that he really didn’t back it? No,” Sabato said. “It was because he had to pick and choose, because Congress cannot consume too many things at once. It is just as slow moving as everybody accuses it of being.”
On the whole, Sabato said, Obama kept or tried to keep most of his promises, and he added that research shows most politicians do try to keep their promises. What differs is how well they adapt to real-world circumstances to get their promises fulfilled.
In a few cases, for example, Obama jettisoned promises in pursuit of larger agreements. As he negotiated the healthcare law, he abandoned campaign promises to create a government-run health insurance program (called the public option) and let go of a pledge to allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
Obama’s most significant broken promise, though, was his pledge to usher in a new bipartisanship. Republicans were in such lockstep against his major initiatives that Obama usually had to rely on thin Democratic majorities. The stimulus passed with only a tiny number of Republican votes, and the final version of health reform with none. In 2011, Congress flirted with default as House Republicans refused to increase the federal debt ceiling, a legal requirement that allows the government to pay its bills. Another battle over the debt ceiling looms for 2013.
Obama found it hard to accomplish his goals and mend the partisan wounds, said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. The battle for the healthcare law, for example, was extremely divisive.
“I think the president was torn between his desire to de-escalate the partisanship on the one hand, and his real commitment to get some things done,” Galston said.
Tampa Bay Times staff writers Louis Jacobson, Becky Bowers and Molly Moorhead contributed to this report.