Don't Ask Don't Tell
"You don't hear politicians give a one-word answer much," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked last year whether the administration would repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. "But it's 'Yes.'" It took awhile to get going, but there's been a lot of movement on this front in recent months, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chief of Staff Mike Mullen, and even Colin Powell lining up behind repealing DADT this year. With elections approaching, however, there's also an increasing nervousness among gay-rights activists that they might get double crossed. Recently Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, penned a letter to Obama over rumors that the White House and Congress were looking to punt the issue to next year. "The upcoming House and Senate votes will be close, and very frankly, Mr. President, we need your help now," Sarvis wrote.
Hispanic voters were a key part of Democrats' winning coalition in 2006 and 2008, and President Obama has been very explicit in promising immigration reform since taking office. As recently as last month, Obama promised "to do everything in my power" to advance a comprehensive reform bill and praised Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for working on a bipartisan piece of legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers. But can Congress and the White House successfully navigate such a hot-button issue with an election looming? After all, if you thought the Tea Party rallies and town halls were ugly during the health-care debate, wait until you see immigration. Already Graham is warning that a bill might be dead in the water as Republicans are reluctant to cross the aisle.
An offhand promise in a debate ended up coming back to haunt Democrats during the health-care debate. After making the claim in a 2008 primary debate that his administration would be "bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are," Democrats quickly realized the plan was not even close to feasible. As early as July 2009, McClatchy reported that significant closed-door negotiations were taking place and White House press secretary was walking back the pledge, saying that "I don't think the president intimated that every decision putting together a health-care bill would be on public TV." C-SPAN called Democrats on their bluff in January of this year with an unsuccessful request to broadcast their negotiations. The broken C-SPAN promise ended up becoming a staple of critics' arguments against the health-care bill.
Closing Guantanamo Bay
Of all of President Obama's promises, it's hard to find one that's faced a tougher path than his efforts to revamp the nation's policies regarding terror detainees. After making a bold pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility by January 2010, he admitted in November of last year that the deadline was no longer feasible. Members of Congress proved extremely reluctant to cooperate, with many expressing concerns that imprisoning suspected terrorists in America could prove dangerous. "People, I think understandably, are fearful after a lot of years where they were told that Guantanamo was critical to keep terrorists out," the president said at the time. And civil libertarians still see a proposed plan to move the prisoners to a new facility in Illinois as a betrayal of Obama's pledge to restore habeas corpus rights, since detainees could still be held indefinitely.
Cap and Trade
As early as October 2007, President Obama pledged to enact a cap-and-trade energy plan that would set a fixed limit on carbon emissions and lower them over time, with a goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050. While the House has already passed a bill, things have moved much slower in the Senate and with Democrats expected to lose seats in November, this may be the last chance to advance significant legislation. Sens. John Kerry (R-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have been tinkering with a compromise proposal that's expected to be released soon, but it's unclear how far it would go in addressing the issue. Obama has been bracing Democrats for disappointment, suggesting in February that a final law might include support for alternative energy sources without a cap-and-trade system. Graham even pronounced cap-and-trade "dead" recently, but may have been referring to the branding rather than the substantive legislation.
To the Moon and Back
President Obama's new plan for space exploration broke one of his campaign pledges—a man on the moon. In policy papers put out during his 2008 run, Obama's campaign endorsed a new lunar mission by 2020. But this year's budget for NASA will not fund such a program, which the administration deemed prohibitively expensive. A number of former astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, have criticized the new plan for ceding lunar exploration to other countries. Obama's NASA will look into missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars instead.
A pledge to make the White House more transparent after the Bush administration's notorious secrecy has drawn plenty of criticism already for being all talk. A memo put out on his first full day of work, January 21, 2009, ordered government agencies to offer documents more freely to reporters under the Freedom of Information Act. But by July of last year, Newsweek reported that loopholes in the memo allow agencies to withhold documents for a number of reasons, such as if they pertain to "pending litigation." Last month, the Associated Press reported that agencies have cited a "deliberative process" exemption, which allows the government to withhold documents that pertain to behind-the-scenes decision making, 70,779 times in the 2009 budget year, versus 47,395 times under President Bush in his final year. Obama officials point to the public release of White House visitors’ records as an example of a solid improvement, but the notion that the administration is a new benchmark in transparency seems difficult to back up.