In the 2008 Presidential election campaign, it seemed that Obama was wanting to stop many of the Bush-era counter-terrorism policies, such as torture, Guantanamo Bay, and excessive surveillance. He even got painted as a terrorist sympathiser, or at least someone who associated with terrorists, during the campaign.

However, now his administration is being criticised for its counter-terrorism policies, such as drone killings, surveillance, and prosecutions of those involved with revealing surveillance programs.

Obama is rated as compromise about restricting warrantless wiretaps, and promise broken about restoring habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants, by PolitiFact.

While some point to Republican opposition to change on some counter-terrorism policies (as mentioned in What has Barack Obama Done Regarding Torture and Indefinite Detention?), I find it hard to believe that that can explain everything.

So what is responsible for the differences between what Obama promised, and what the administration is currently doing? Was he making promises he intended not to honour? Has his views on what counter-terrorism policies are appropriate changed over time? Or is his policies changing so that he gets more support from moderate conservatives?

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    This is a question about motivations and is unanswerable. There are a variety of potential factors, including love of power, congressional opposition to desired changes, new information encountered upon entering office, etc. Unless somebody can read the president's mind then this question is unanswerable.
    – Publius
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 5:38

8 Answers 8


In his book, National Security and Double Government, Michael J. Glennon describes how the capacity of those high up in the hierarchy to affect change is very limited. The higher-up may select between several policy options, however the options are prepared by mid-level bureaucrats based on their experience and outlook and the aggregate opinions of low-level bureaucrats.

Leaders who ignore their subordinates advice when giving orders generally don't last very long, because they have no way of distinguishing between an order that is bad for the bureaucracy but good for everyone else, and one that is bad for the bureaucracy and catastrophic for everyone else.

The actual effects are not that far away from the ones that the less-crazy conspiracy theorists describe; however, there is no shady backroom where evil men fake accountability and secretly pull all the strings, it is simply that no one has figured out yet how to create an organization that does not generate its very own momentum and dynamic over time or at least is easier to influence by consciously applied policy.


One of his very first acts was to order the shutdown of Guantanamo, but Congress moved to block his ability to transfer them to legitimate detention facilities. He's the president, not a king. The fact that he was actively blocked by a co-equal branch of government doesn't really put the onus for an "unkept promise" on his shoulders.

Obama orders Gitmo closure within a day or two of taking office

Congress blocks Gitmo closure

He has stopped the use of torture and black sites.

Executive order 13941

He never said he wouldn't use drone strikes, but I think his record is very poor on that, in terms of checks and balances.

Keep in mind, when Bush started using wiretaps and surveillance that Obama later criticized, he bypassed the courts and did so without required warrants. Obama's continued surveillance has been through the established system of obtaining warrants from the courts.

Wikipedia Article on NSA warrant-less wiretapping, 2001-07

The claims of differences that you cite seem to be much greater than the actuality, or are the result of direct action taken by others to block him.

The degree to which this reality differs from stated goals on the campaign trail is not especially remarkable, when you consider most campaign promises are overly broad, overly simplified, subject to reality and compromise.


When you're running a campaign and you aren't actually required to completely think through the consequences of hypothetical actions, it's very easy to make promises that you intend to keep, but in reality might break.

However, when it comes time to execute, reality kicks in and you might have second thoughts, or potentially you can't always do what You've promised.

There are 2 issues here.

  • It's entirely possible that Obama changed his mind on some issues, possibly after counsel from advisers that he didn't have during the campaign. It might not seem like it when you're arguing with someone, but people reflect and change their minds on issues all the time.

  • Obama is not a king(he's not even really a legislator). He still has to work with numerous other bodies such as Congress and the supreme court. He has to go through a process in order to get certain things done, and sometimes he just doesn't have the support to pass the policy that he wants to pass.

  • While your points are potentially true, for the question to be answered you need to demonstrate that they're true and relevant.
    – Publius
    Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 22:15
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    In the realm of counter-terrorism issue 2 is a joke. The Obama administraion like Clapper lie to congress about the extend to which they spie on US citizens and Obama waged the war in Lybia without congressal approval. Court get told that they aren't supposed to involve themsevles in national security matters. Obama promized to reduce presidential power but acts like a king in the national security space.
    – Christian
    Commented Aug 13, 2013 at 17:17
  • This is just opining. "He's not even really a legislator": Huh? Separation of powers ring a bell? Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 17:17
  • In addition to not having the advisors he would probably not have clearance as a candidate, so he would not have information that the general public does not have access to, which could account for changing his views.
    – kleineg
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 17:37
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    @eugeneSeidel Yes, and under that separation the President is the executive branch, not the legislative. Commented May 26, 2016 at 7:18

In modern US politics politicians tell voters what they want to hear during election times. They pay pollsters to gather information about what voters want to hear and then tell voters that story. Than you have professional speech writers and the candidate delivers the speech.

Bush got elected on a no nation building platform and went to do things like the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war that resulted in far more nationbuilding investment than Kosovo.

Obama who hailed the importance of whistleblowers in his campaign now wages his war against them and the press.

If you expect that campaign rhetoric has anything to do with what the candidate things about the issue than you are just believing a delusion.

If you want to know what a politician does, look at his track record and at the track record of the people with whom he surrounds himself. For myself it took some time to see through Obama claims but when he picked bluedog organiser Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was the day I understood the whole campaign rhetoric as farce.

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    Whether or not to do nation building is part of the paleo/neocon split. Bush filled his administration with neocons who wanted to go to war in Iraq again to succeed where the first Iraq war failed.
    – Christian
    Commented Aug 13, 2013 at 21:51
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    Again, is there any evidence that these things are the case? Politifact.com tracks these promises and showed that Obama keeps or compromises on 75% of them (and not all of the remaining 25% are deliberately broken promises), so it seems silly to suggest there's no consistency between promises and policy.
    – Publius
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 10:44
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    @Avi: Politfact rates Obama promise of "Increase protections for whistleblowers" as compromise in face of him prosequting more people espionage act persecutions than previous presidents. A promise like "Reform mandatory minimum sentences" gets billed as "Promise kept" because Obama ordered a committee to report on the topic. It seems like it's more about quantity than quality.
    – Christian
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 5:20
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    @Avi: Full complete analysis would be a book that I don't have time to write.
    – Christian
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 13:06
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    When he reneged on his promise as senator to filibuster the FISA Amendments Act that legalized the telecoms' illegal wiretapping after the fact, and then voted for it - that should have told everyone all we needed to know about what kind of president he would be.
    – J Doe
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 23:05

We all know what it feels to get into a project or a job and realise that we simply cannot deliver because of a combination of external factors and our own limitations.

The best answer, maybe a short one, is given by President Obama himself in his press dinner speech. He said he had promised change but 'should have been more specific'

"Eight years ago I said it was time to change the tone of our politics. In hindsight, I clearly should have been more specific. Eight years ago, I was a young man full of idealism and vigor. And look at me now, I am gray, grizzled and just counting down the days to my death panel."

Maybe it's because he could not keep his idealism. Maybe it's not possible, as others have mentioned because of the limits of what you can actually do. Maybe the world is much more dangerous that we know (we don't have access to his intelligence briefings), and what did was perfectly reasonable once he became president.

The transcript of his speech is here

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    I agree with this answer, but do note the correspondents dinner speech is very much tongue-in-cheek. It's a comedy routine more than anything.
    – user1530
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 13:55
  • I realize that the correspondents dinner, is a sort of stand up comedy routine, but beyond the humour what he said does reveal something of his President Obama's personality, the fact that he mentions his idealism at all, and the hints that there has been a change.
    – stackex555
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 4:39

I don't know that there's any reason to think that there's any simple cause.

It's a combination of factors:

  1. The world is changing
  2. The president is not a king; he has to compromise with others
  3. He has lots of priorities and he can't make every battle number one priority

I think that plain and simple government reflects the people. And this is not the #1 priority for very many Americans. After Obama took office we all found that the economic situation was far worse than expected, and Obama become focused on other issues.

How many Democrats or Independents voted for Romney because they thought that he was an improvement on Obama based on his expected performance on anti-terrorism issues? Very very few I would think.


What a politician promises and what a politician delivers is almost invariably not the same. He gave promises to get elected, but the truth is, he is a big government politician and he will use government to suit the agenda of his constituents.

What do I mean by big government? It's admittedly a little bit vague. However, a government large enough that the public no longer can maintain control of it would be a big government. In other words, the government becomes an entity which acts on its own will rather than on the will of the governed.

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    True. "Big government" is a dog-whistle term. But still true. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 5:04
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    @LateralFractal What's the hidden meaning of "big government?"
    – lazarusL
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 12:51
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    @LateralFractal I thought that was the literal meaning ;)
    – lazarusL
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 13:15
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    Currently US socialism is applied through government services; hence 'big government' substitutes for 'socialist' for the average pundit. This substitute is extra handy for correlating socialism (which some people loath) with bureaucracy (which everyone loathes). Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 13:50
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    @DVK Ask Politicoid. As I find frame debates recursive, tiring and falling back personal axiomic preferences anyway. Is A = B or A = !B or A = B but B != A, etc, etc. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 0:51

Obama pretended to be left during elections, with much of left-wing promises, but actually he is one of the most right-wing presidents ever.

Obama definitely falls in the right-wing camp, with Clinton, Reagan and Bush the Younger. The difference is that Reagan more spoke about his right-wing views while Obama tries to deceive the public, in this respect he is more similar to Clinton.

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    Do you have any evidence to support this statement?
    – Publius
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 17:35
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    Not sure about "most," but certainly he's a cautious centrist and not the screaming radical liberal his political foes like to paint him as. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 23:03

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