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Do Political Candidates Just Tell Us What We Want to Hear?

Across time, presidents have been pretty steady with how many campaign promises they've accomplished in office.

by Jacob Hillesheim
September 11, 2019 | Our Future

George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1988: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

President George H.W. Bush in 1990: “It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require… tax revenue increases.”

If you believe politicians tell us what we want to hear to get elected, and then do whatever they want once they've won, you're not alone.

When it comes to broken presidential promises, President H.W. Bush’s tax policy is one of the most famous examples, but there’s no shortage of others.

President Woodrow Wilson used the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” to win the election of 1916, held five months before the United States entered World War I.

While President Barack Obama promised to close the partisan divide in Washington, D.C., it’s undoubtedly widened.

President Donald Trump promised to repeal Obamacare and build a wall on America’s southern border on Mexico’s dime, neither of which has happened.

Before you throw your hands in the air and give up on politics, however, it might be worth considering whether these examples are the rule — or the exception.

Research suggests we're wrong

Thankfully, data tells us that we’re probably wrong to disbelieve all campaign promises.

Nonprofit fact-checking organization Politifact has tracked campaign promises of presidents Obama and Trump, as well as the Republican party’s congressional leadership.

Generally, politicians do actually try to accomplish the things they say they'll do.

According to Politifact, President Obama kept almost half of his promises and compromised on another quarter, suggesting that he fulfilled or made a good faith effort to fulfill 76 percent of his campaign promises.

illustration of 4 speakers at podiums. Rewire PBS Our Future Campaign Promises
Research shows politicians actually do try to accomplish their campaign promises once elected. So pay attention to what candidates are saying during upcoming debates.

GOP leadership, not always a unified group to start with, kept or compromised on 70 percent of their promises.

President Trump’s record is more difficult to calculate since we’re still in the middle of his first term. More than 55 percent of Trump’s promises have been kept, turned into compromises or are “in the works.” Another 27 percent Politifact considers “stalled,” which could conceivably end up as compromises or broken promises. Only 16 percent of Trump’s promises are categorized as “broken.”

This aligns with previous research on presidential promises. Political scientists have found that every president from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton fulfilled a similar percentage of campaign promises. That's pretty good, even before we consider the forces beyond a politician’s control.

Presidents can't always act alone

Due to America’s separation of powers and checks and balances, no president can single-handedly accomplish all of their objectives.

Congress controls the nation’s spending and must write and approve legislation before it’s sent to the president. As a result, presidents often struggle to achieve their goals unless their political party controls both chambers of Congress.

Many of President Obama’s initiatives stalled when the Republican party took over the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections. President Trump discovered the same thing when Democrats took back the House in 2018.

In response, both Obama and Trump increasingly attempted to govern by executive order. But the scope of executive orders is limited and, just like laws, they can be undone by court rulings.

What this means for the Democratic debates

All of this brings us to the Democratic debate on Sept. 12 in Houston.

If I’ve convinced you that politicians generally try to fulfill campaign promises, then I’ve convinced you that the Democratic primary debates matter. If three out of every four promises made by the eventual winner turn into policy, then we’d better pay attention to what the candidates are saying.

There are still some things to keep in mind, however.

First, be wary of promises that would require the involvement of Congress or the courts. Consider these promises of policy goals rather than promises of actual change.

Second, be wary of promises that the president has little control over. Presidents don’t control fiscal policy, for example, which is monitored by the largely nonpartisan Federal Reserve. Also, globalization means that the American economy is often at the mercy of other economies. For instance, the 1997 Financial Crisis started in Thailand, but rippled out to the rest of the world.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that some promises mean more than others. Criticisms of the ideas or plans of other candidates might not be promises at all. Instead, that candidate might be jockeying for a specific position on the political spectrum, hoping to move left to attract primary voters or to move toward the center to appear more “electable.”

And of course, specific promises usually mean more than vague ones. “I will pursue a $15 minimum wage and increase emissions standards by 10 percent” is more indicative of a candidate’s policy goals than “I will fight for income equality and a cleaner environment.”

The clearer the promise, the higher the political costs of breaking them.

Jacob Hillesheim
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.
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