There are three types of promises in politics. There are those you keep. There are those you break even though very few notice. Then, there are those that you break and are devastating to your own standing. Which of these three depends of course on the politician. It also depends on the visibility of the promise broken. For instance, there is no greater example of the third than George HW Bush. In a televised debate, he famously said "read my lips, no new taxes". Then, he even more famously broke that promise and raised taxes. Ultimately, that broken promise lead directly to his losing the election in 1992.
Politicians often say all sorts of things on the campaign trail. Most they don't have any intention of following through on, and some they find very difficult to hold once they reach office. Candidate Obama made a point of saying that he would make serious earmark reform. He even more than once said that he would go through each and every budget "line by line" in an attempt to purge earmarks from the budget.
This promise stands in stark contrast with his intention to sign the omnibus bill currently being debated in Congress. This bill has nearly 9000 earmarks. At $410 billion, it also means an increase in spending of about 8% over the last budget passed last year. This omnibus budget has not only received the ire of Republicans but even a few Democrats that also oppose it.
The president, for his part, has said that this budget is "last year's business" and this is why it is loaded with earmarks. The Republicans, for their part, have asked for about 40% of the earmarks, but this has stopped its leadership from using the budget as a bludgeon against the president.
As each earmark has been brought to light by the media, each more ridiculous and embarrassing than the next, the whole fiasco has eaten away at his credibility. For this reason, he must be shrieking at the length that it has taken to pass this bill. Last week, two weeks after first being introduced, Harry Reid realized that he still didn't have the votes. He passed an emergency five day extension hoping to take up the issue in the week coming up.
What this did was keep the issue on the front burner for the weekend talk shows. It gave John McCain another opportunity to rail against it on Fox News Sunday, for instance. It allowed for another round of scathing editorials like this one. The problem for the president on this issue is that has capitulation has no real excuse. It was done out of pure cynical political calculation. (exactly the thing he said he would rise above on the campaign trail) He needs the leadership on other bigger and more important matters like health care, climate change, and taxes. He didn't want to take them on fearing he would lose their support on other issues.
As such, he made a political calculation. He figured that the backlash from his broken promise wouldn't be that large. He figured that this broken promise would be in the second category. He didn't count on this going as long as it has. The longer this process goes, though, the more it will wind up in the third category. While it's unlikely that this broken promise will cost President Obama, the way that the first President Bush's broken tax promise did. Still, every president only has so many broken promises like this one before the public turns on him. I won't say that President Obama lost the war on this, but he certainly lost a major battle.
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