WASHINGTON/AP — President Barack Obama’s campaign team is casting him as a man of his word, countering Republican efforts to portray his White House record as nothing but a series of failed promises. But the approach carries risks that Republicans hope to capitalize on.
A new mantra of “promises made, promises kept” is emerging from Obama’s team, presenting the president as a man of conviction while digging into charges that GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has vacillated on a broad number of issues as he seeks his party’s nomination.
Obama considers his record a selling point, telling donors last November that he would put his legislative record “up against any president in their first term.” In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” last month, he said he’d put his administration’s “legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president ” with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R. and Lincoln ” just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history.”
But the approach exposes the president to scrutiny of his own record on the economy, which has shown signs of improvement in recent months but still remains hamstrung by high unemployment and low consumer confidence. It also generates questions about unfulfilled promises such as closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and changing the culture of Washington.
Republicans intend to place a magnifying glass on Obama’s first term, pointing to what they consider a litany of failed promises to fix the economy, reduce unemployment and slash the federal deficit. The Republican National Committee has compiled a lengthy dossier of Obama’s statements, interviews and policy positions, preparing for the upcoming campaign.
“We’re going to use those words against him,” said RNC chairman Reince Priebus.
Republicans point to unemployment that has stayed above 8 percent for nearly three years, noting that Obama’s administration predicted the economic stimulus would cut unemployment below that mark. The nation’s debt has ballooned under the president’s watch and attempts to foster alternative energy have been marred by the bankruptcy of California energy company Solyndra despite a $528 million federal loan from the Obama administration.
Other promises remain unfulfilled: Lawmakers have resisted attempts by the administration to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, immigration reform remains stalled in Congress and gridlock has enveloped the Capitol despite Obama’s pledges to bring the two parties together.
Yet Obama’s team is trying to create a narrative of a steady leader who has stuck with the plan despite trying times.
With attention fixed on Iowa’s leadoff caucuses this week, his campaign e-mailed supporters a video of Obama’s Iowa victory speech in January 2008, noting the candidate kept the big promises he made that night: making health care more affordable, cutting taxes for the middle class, ending the war in Iraq and reducing dependence on foreign oil.
Obama’s team wants to contrast those promises with Romney, whom they cast as a chronic flip-flopper who has altered stances on abortion, immigration, tax cuts and more.
“Taking two positions on every issue … doesn’t make you a centrist, it makes you a charlatan,” said Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod. “It makes you unreliable.”
Romney, who picked up the endorsement of Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire on Wednesday, said he was unfazed by the attention of other Republicans and Obama’s campaign. He has called Obama’s term a “failure” and talked up his business credentials as the antidote to the nation’s problems.
“I’ve got a big target on me now,” Romney told NBC’s “Today Show.” ”I’ve got broad shoulders. I’m willing to handle it.”
The approach is hardly novel. Republicans showcased President George W. Bush as man of principal, frequently telling voters that while you might not agree with the president on everything, you knew where he stood.
In Michigan during the 1990s, Republican Gov. John Engler made “Promises Made, Promises Kept” his campaign mantra, pointing to things like job creation and welfare reforms that he championed during his campaign.
John Truscott, a former Engler aide, said the strategy resonated because the governor was able to make a convincing case that the major promises were met. Truscott, a Republican strategist, said it could be difficult for Obama to make a similar case on a national stage because the most pressing issue ” the economy ” remains weak.
“I don’t think the voters will hold him to every single nit-picky item. But elections come down to bread-and-butter issues,” he said. “With a majority of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, you’re inviting scrutiny.”
Obama, speaking at an Ohio high school on Wednesday, made a larger pledge, telling his audience that they’d been “hearing a lot of promises from a lot of politicians lately.”