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Do Presidents Usually Follow Through on Promises?

President Obama made a lot of promises during yesterday's State of the Union address. Going by past results, he'll probably accomplish some of them.
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President Barack Obama speech

(Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Roughly halfway through his State of the Union address yesterday, President Obama said, to much applause, “Let’s do it. Let’s get it done.” He was speaking, of course, about the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together to bring more jobs to the Unites States. But that “Let’s get it done” rhetoric could be the tag line for Obama’s entire speech. Among Obama’s many ambitious goals addressed yesterday: free community college, improving cybersecurity, enhancing tax credits for child care, and increasing taxes on the wealthy. Oh yeah, and he still wants to close Guantanamo Bay.

Political pundits have, predictably, offered a full spectrum of hot takes. Some praised this confident Obama; others criticized his brashness. And with a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s not like anything will be easy. Still, going by past research, it would be unwise to completely doubt him.

A 1984 study by political scientist Michael Krukones found that 75 percent of presidential campaign promises made were actually kept. And while Krukones’ research spanned Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter, another political scientist, Jeff Fishel, investigated the campaign promises made from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. Fishel’s 1985 study showed that presidents routinely try to fulfill their promises; if they fall short, it's usually the result of a disobliging Congress.

Using Tampa Bay Times fact-checking whiz-machine PolitiFact, it’s easy to see that Obama’s got a good—though not great—track record of following through on campaign promises. Tracking more than 500 promises, PolitiFact found that Obama has kept 45 percent of them, compromised on 24 percent, and broken 22 percent. That’s a far cry from the 75 percent cited in earlier research, but keep in mind: The guy is working with quite possibly the most difficult Congress ever. Plus, he’s still got eight percent of all promises “in the works.” (Though these studies and the data from PolitiFact only relate to campaigns, they offer a solid basis for predicting how he'll follow up on his State of the Union goals.) Assuming he accomplishes, say, half of those, that brings his number of promises kept to around 50 percent. Coincidentally—or, in a way, not—that’s right around where his approval rating is hovering right now.