Did he deliver? A look at Obama’s promises ahead of State of the Union
Delivering the annual report to lawmakers is one of the president’s obligations specified in the Constitution. Between 1801 and 1913, the White House sent written reports, until Woodrow Wilson decided to address Congress in person. It was known as “the President's Annual Message to Congress” until 1934, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it the “State of the Union” – often abbreviated ‘SOTU’ – and the name stuck.
“He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
(US Constitution, Article II, Section 3)
Closing Gitmo... or not
Shutting down the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was a major part of Obama’s campaign platform, and one of the big promises he made in his 2009 address to Congress.
“That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists: because living our values doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us safer, and it makes us stronger,” Obama said.
Camp Delta, the infamous detention facility, remains open. It turned 14 this week, with 103 captives remaining after Monday’s release of a Saudi national imprisoned since January 2002.
Though the Republican lawmakers have strongly resisted Obama’s efforts to close the camp, going so far as to prohibit any funding to relocate prisoners to US soil in the defense funding bill for 2016, that does not explain why the president failed to deliver between 2009 and 2011, when he had a Democratic majority in Congress.
Afghanistan: War without end
Another major plank in Obama’s platform was ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were started by his predecessor. All US combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq by December 2011, although advisers and contractors remained to train and advise Iraqi forces. The US military presence was beefed up in 2015, as Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) continued to advance.
In 2014’s address, Obama promised to finish the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of that year.
“With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over,” he said.
As the Afghan government began losing ground to Taliban insurgents, however, the timeline for US withdrawal continued to slip. In October 2015, Obama declared that 9,800 troops would remain in Afghanistan through 2016, drawing down to 5,500 in 2017, but keeping the deployment open-ended.
The boys are back in Baghdad
US combat units withdrew from Iraq by the end of 2011, after the government in Baghdad rejected Washington’s request for permanent basing. Some US forces were back by 2014 however, as instructors and advisers for the US-backed Iraqi army as it struggled to cope with the rising threat of IS, which controls a large portion of Iraq.
“I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against [Islamic State],” Obama said in 2015’s speech. The current US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is still based on the 2001 congressional authorization of military force.
Dubbed 'Inherent Resolve,' the $4 billion-a-year air campaign against IS was launched in September 2014, but made little progress until Russian involvement starting in October 2015 tipped the scales in Syria.
Iran: Peace in our time
“Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” Obama declared in 2012’s SOTU.
By July 2015, the five permanent UN Security Council powers and Germany (P5+1) had reached an agreement with Tehran on curtailing Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Efforts to defeat the deal in Congress failed, as Obama secured enough votes to block a resolution of disapproval.
Gun control: Shot down
Disarming Americans has proven more of a challenge for the president. Ever since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, Obama has tried to impose stricter laws on gun sales.
“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different,” Obama declared in 2013.
It wasn’t different, though. The Republican-led Congress has firmly opposed new gun laws, so Obama has resorted to executive orders to beef up existing rules.
Quantity and quality: Jobs grow, wages not so much
When Obama took office, he promised to create millions of jobs. By all accounts, that promise has been fulfilled. However, while the quantity of jobs has increased, their quality has not. Wages have remained flat while expenses have mounted, and a gap in income inequality has consumed the middle class.
“The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous,” Obama said in his 2009 inauguration speech.
His economic policies appear to have benefited the prosperous more than others, as 2015 saw mass protests demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour.
Too broke for school
In 2015, Obama made sweeping promises to rein in runaway student debt and lower the cost of higher education.
“I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero,” he said.
“I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams,” he added.
The community college plan went nowhere. The White House did expand a repayment program that capped student loan payments at 10 percent of graduates’ income and included a provision for debt forgiveness after 20 years, while Congress made permanent a tax cut for higher education expenses.
However, the Obama administration did crack down on for-profit colleges that were exploiting federal subsidies while never quite giving their students degrees that they could use.
Obamacare: The big win?
"We will raise health care’s quality and lower its cost,” Obama declared in 2009.
In March 2010, the Democratic-majority Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. Often referred to as 'Obamacare' by detractors and champions alike, the law has survived scores of repeal attempts and two major legal challenges.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court chose to interpret the mandate provision as a tax, ruling the ACA constitutional on those grounds. Another challenge in 2015 zeroed in on statutory phrasing for state-established insurance markets, but SCOTUS ruled that “context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase."
Though the number of Americans with health insurance has increased since, Obama’s famous “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” pledge did not survive the ACA. Many people who had insurance ended up with plans that delivered less at a higher price. In 2014, some 7.5 million taxpayers chose to pay the penalty instead.
Fixing the border… or not
In the 2010 SOTU, Obama spoke of “fixing our broken immigration system… secure our borders and enforce our laws.” By 2013, however, it became clear that what he really wanted was mass amnesty.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” Obama said in his second inaugural address.
Efforts to pass amnesty laws stalled in Congress, while Obama’s efforts to sidestep the blockade through executive action were blocked by federal courts. Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has pretty much single-handedly turned immigration into a major issue in the 2016 election.