Anatomy of a Broken Campaign Promise

While all kept campaign promises are alike, each broken promise is broken in its own way.

Campaign vows that are kept are often politically or administratively easy to fulfill. But failed promises fail for a host of reasons.

Sometimes, politicians make pledges they know they can't possibly keep. (See "Lips, Read My.")

Frequently, candidates (and their over-eager and young staffs) are naive, making huge commitments without fully understanding what it takes to get things done in our current political climate. Working as a Presidential campaign staffer in my youth, I can attest that the lightning pace of modern campaigns makes it impossible to fully research the merits and flaws of most proposals.

Yet other times, circumstances beyond a leader's control change so dramatically that the original promise becomes impossible to achieve. Often, a leader does take some steps to carry out a pledge but is thwarted by opposing forces.

Almost always though, the failure to keep a promise is more than the failure of any individual politician. The opposition party, special interests, the media, and yes, even the American people should shoulder some of the blame.

Let's take the example of the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign pledge to end domestic child hunger by 2015. (Spoiler alert: it didn't happen.)

When Obama made his pledge in an October 2008 position paper, the campaign quoted the most recent hunger numbers then available, from 2006, pointing out that, "1 in 6 children lives in a household that is food insecure." At the time, that equaled 12.6 million American kids. By 2008, when George W. Bush was still President, the number then skyrocketed to 16.7 million. In 2014, the last year for which data is available, the number was 15.3 million, 21 percent higher than when Obama made the promise, although eight percent lower than when he took office.

While child hunger may drop slightly in 2015, due to improvements in the overall economy and some expansions of child nutrition programs, it is very likely that, by the time Obama leaves office, at least one in five U.S. children will still struggle to get the nutritious food they need. So while the President marginally reduced the level of child hunger that he inherited, he utterly failed to keep his promise to eliminate it. Why?

The pledge was pretty shaky from the start. Neither Obama nor Biden actually voiced it themselves. No press release was issued. The hunger position paper was placed in an obscure corner on their campaign website, to be found only by the activists who pushed the campaign to make the vow in the first place. The media virtually ignored the news.

Like most campaign pledges, its actual wording was wobbly and vague. In one paragraph, it said Obama would "commit" to ending childhood hunger by 2015, but in another, it said he would merely "fight" to do so. Even though the paper was released after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it's unclear whether the campaign fully understood the enormity of the economic improvements needed, and the cost of the safety net expansions necessary, to entirely eliminate U.S. child hunger.

Other than promising one-time spending of $25 billion on an economic stimulus plan that would include some unspecified boost in funding for SNAP (the current name for the Food Stamp Program), the paper made no dollar commitments. While it mightily praised nutrition aid to pregnant women and infants, school meals, summer meals for kids, and aid to food banks, it offered no new money for any of those efforts. Given that their Republican opponents were slamming Obama and Biden as so-called big spenders, it's no surprise that the campaign refused to put a price tag on the pledge.

In the rare instances in which candidates do accurately explain how much their proposals will cost, they are often lambasted by the media and punished by voters. The very honesty that is central to good governance is antithetical to good campaigning.

By the time Obama was inaugurated, the full extent of the economic collapse was evident. The number of U.S. children in poverty had increased by 2.4 million under Bush. Most mainstream economists agreed that massive new government spending was needed to both boost economic growth and slash poverty. But the campaign hadn't educated voters about the need for such large outlays - and Republican opposition to a proposed recovery package was immediate, fierce, and unified - so the Democrats scaled back their stimulus package and declined to push minimum wage hikes, even though, at the time, they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Once the G.O.P. took control of the Congress, full austerity became the norm and wage hikes were a non-starter.

The recent growth in jobs has not been able to counteract the devastating impact of low wages, large numbers of workers with only part time employment, and limits on social service funding. In fact, child poverty has increased by another 1.5 million under President Obama. Given that fully 21 percent of American children now live in poverty, it would be virtually impossible for the nation to end child hunger solely by expanding federal food programs.

The Obama Administration did take significant steps to specifically address child hunger. The original stimulus act did, as promised, include a significant bump in SNAP spending - at least half of which went to children. Obama's appointees at USDA performed courageous and effective work lifting barriers to nutrition program participation. The First Lady fought for - and won - significant improvements in the nutrition quality of school meals.

But when future bills to fight hunger were considered, Democrats suffered withering (often racially freighted) attacks from the Right for supposedly wanting to turn America into a "food stamps nation." Agribusinesses, threatened by potential cuts to their never-ending spigot of corporate welfare, pushed for cuts in hunger programs instead. In response, the President and many Democrats caved under pressure, agreeing to $14 billion in SNAP cuts and a sequestration process that limited nutrition aid to pregnant women and infants and support for food banks.

Media acquiescence also plays a role. Political reporters and editors are often obsessed with polling, insider bickering, big-money fundraising, and personal insults - not substance and certainly not substance relating to poverty. No high-profile media outlet reported on Obama's hunger pledge when he made it, even though, had the promise been kept, it would have transformed American society. Since then, only a handful has reported on the President's progress on the pledge.

Last week, Jeb Bush chastised Hillary Clinton for giving Obama an "A" grade in running the country. Said Bush, "One in seven people are living in poverty. That's not an A. One in five children are on food stamps. That is not an A." Virtually every other Republican candidate has blamed the President for our high rates of poverty and food stamps usage. But few in the media have questioned them about the role of Republican economic and social policies in wrecking the economy and making it harder for families to climb out of poverty. In the Presidential debates to date, both Republican and Democratic, none of the journalists moderating asked so much as a single question about poverty or hunger.

We can't let the American people off the hook either. They read and watch fluff coverage, if they read or watch news at all. They vote for politicians who routinely break their promises, if they vote at all.

If the average American can remember the name of the fourth season winner of Survivor or the Cub's third-string catcher, then they have enough time and mental acuity to take it upon themselves to carefully study the promises of all the candidates, to vote only for those who make realistic pledges, and to hold their elected officials accountable once in office.

A kept campaign promise is an orphan but a broken campaign promise has many fathers and mothers. It's up to all of us, as parents of the broken promises, to see that they are kept.