Politico has a fun re-cap of quotes from President Obama that have dogged him throughout this re-election process and may well get a rehearing in Wednesday’s debate:
[A]s the president and his team well know, Obama in Denver on Wednesday will be defending a first-term record that looks strikingly different than the one he imagined when he took office in January 2009. Obama’s own words, and those of his closest aides, culled from his first campaign and the early phase of his presidency, tell the story. Cumulatively, the quotations are an anthology of lofty aspirations that fell to earth, and boastful predictions that didn’t come true. All presidents have plans that don’t work out. But many of Obama’s off-the-mark quotes echo because—as a president with a short history in Washington and no previous executive experience—he faced an especially jarring collision between his confident assumptions about how he would govern and the reality of what was possible.
“Washington is broken. My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”
In retrospect, Obama’s exaggerated belief in his own capacity to transform Washington—not to mention his own wavering self-discipline in resisting nakedly partisan politics—looks like his most naïve miscalculation about his own power.
“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Obama biographers and even friends have noted his tendency from a young age to sometimes to let self-confidence curdle into excessive self-regard—a trait he will try to suppress in Denver. But the main problem with Obama’s quote was not that it was immodest but that it was inaccurate. Obama has not presided over an especially skilled political operation. Relations with key members of Congress and with key political figures in states have been frayed, driven by complaints that Obama does not do enough outreach and political fence-tending.
“If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”
In this quote, from a February 2009 interview on NBC’s “Today” show and widely repeated this year by taunting Republicans, Obama was referring to the pace of economic recovery. Obama’s explanation, of course, is that his policies, including the $787 billion stimulus package, averted depression and made possible a slow but still incomplete comeback. But the words haunt Obama because they were a reminder of how profoundly he and his economic team misunderstood the long-term nature of the crisis that confronted them upon taking office.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
That quote, to the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008, was designed partly to taunt Hillary Rodham Clinton during Obama’s nomination fight against her. But it’s also plain that Obama really believed this. It often seemed like Obama and his top aides couldn’t decide what they disliked more—George W. Bush’s policies or Bill Clinton’s politics. David Axelrod, Obama’s top political adviser, thought Clinton stood for a small and contrived brand of politics, the kind that doesn’t make history.
“Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.”
This comes from comments to reporters after signing an executive order on his third day in office. Here is a bogus prediction—turned out the administration had no good ideas of what to do with these terrorism detainees—that isn’t necessarily causing great problems for Obama. It’s not like Romney is running to Obama’s left on Gitmo. To the contrary, the fact that there was more continuity than reversal of Bush-era surveillance, detention and other anti-terrorism policies is one reason Obama has flipped the historical advantage that Republicans usually have in polls about which party people trust more to keep the country safe.
“I think that health care, over time, is going to become more popular.”
Not really. A little, at best. The quote in this case actually comes from David Axelrod on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September 2010, a half-year after the overhaul of health care passed with an all-Democrats strategy, and a couple months before the Republican takeover of Congress, fueled in part by an “Obamacare” backlash. But there is no question the sentiment was shared by Obama himself, who placed his chips on the health care square early in his presidency. He always knew it would be politically difficult to pass. The assumption, though, was that the legislation would be much more popular—a true accomplishment to run on for re-election—once it became law.
“I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
Obama maintains that these words about gay marriage were not his own when they appeared in a Chicago gay newspaper, Outlines, in 1996, when he was for an Illinois state senate seat. A candidate survey was supposedly filled out in error by a staff member. The words sting even so. Obama has said that his views on gay rights, like those of many Americans, are “evolving.” But there weren’t many Americans evolving toward a less tolerant position, which is what Obama seemed to be for much of his term. Until this summer Obama was on record opposed to gay marriage, a position that had him to the right of Dick Cheney.
“It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future.”
This one is a gotcha that is almost too easy. The problems with one corporation don’t necessarily speak to the viability of a broader energy policy. There were already red flags in May 2010 when the president went to speak at Solyndra’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif. The company went belly up after winning $535 million in taxpayer-funded loan guarantees from the administration. But Obama is going to eat his Solyndra quote for at least a while longer. Romney attacks him on this regularly, and the House GOP’s campaign arm is citing the failed company aggressively in some races.
“I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President.”
It’s possible Obama at least suspected this promise was B.S. when he made it speaking to the National Council of La Raza in San Diego in July 2008. There was hardly a feint of effort in his first year of pushing the issue to passage.
“What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said. “We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”
Obama was talking about the growing expense of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and in his January 15, 2008 interview, five days before taking office, he vowed he was ready to make the tough calls. A little more than a month later, in February 2009, Obama struck a similar tone at a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” at the White House: “I’m pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office.” So far, entitlement reform hasn’t happened, nor has serious deficit reduction.