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What Obama's first term tells us about his second

  • This artwork by Paul Tong relates to Barack Obama's inauguration.

Presidential inaugurations are traditionally occasions for stroking one's chin and offering sober assessments of what the president and the nation can accomplish in the next four years.

This is bound to be an exercise in futility. Four years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath, no one had heard of the tea party, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon, Abbottabad, the Arab Spring, Sheldon Adelson or the 47 percent. "Sandy" referred to beaches or a legendary pitcher for the Dodgers, not a devastating hurricane or a shooting at an elementary school.

It's safe to predict that we will continue arguing in 2013 over the debt ceiling, gun violence and immigration. For everything else, the crystal ball for this year — not to mention the next four years — is cloudy.

So let's look backward instead, to Obama's record of success and failure. His partial successes — works in progress — offer the best clues to what he may yet achieve.

PolitiFact, a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has kept track of the 508 promises Obama made when he was running for president in 2008. Last week, it released an "Obameter" report that rated more than two-thirds of his promises as "Promise Kept" or "Compromise," a better average than voters cynical about campaign pledges had any reason to expect.

Remember Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope"? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.

Other, lower-profile "Promises Kept" testify to Obama's vision of an activist government — not Big Brother, but "my brother's keeper," as he put it during the campaign.

Expanding broadband access, a credit-card bill of rights, increasing minority access to capital, closing the "doughnut hole" in the prescription drug plan, rural development grants, a best-practices list for businesses to accommodate workers with disabilities, boosting the Veterans Affairs budget for mental health: Page after page of popular ideas that went from campaign rhetoric to reality.

Most of the accomplishments look better up close than they do when depicted abstractly as merely "spending." Familiarity with the particulars breeds respect for government, not contempt.

The list is a reminder of the stakes in 2012. Had the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and his party won the 2012 election, hundreds of the "Promises Kept" would have become "Promises Repealed."


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