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Obama’s Unfulfilled State of the Union Goals

On energy, taxes, immigration and Guantanamo tribunals, President Obama has had to settle for something less than the ambitious goals he outlined in prior State of the Union speeches.

President Barack Obama's previous State of the Union speeches have pushed passage of such hallmark initiatives as the stimulus bill, health-care reform, the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays. But some big ideas from previous SOTU addresses have been abandoned.

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler has done a line-by-line analysis of some of the specific promises made in the 2010 and 2011 addresses, and how they've held up. Here we track the evolution of a few of Obama's promises in the SOTU addresses — and why he's struggled to keep them.

Energy and Infrastructure

Obama's speeches have pushed investment in alternative energy technology and major green infrastructure projects as a linchpin of his overall economic recovery plan, but Republicans in Congress have stymied these ambitions. Obama's 2009 speech claimed the stimulus bill would double the U.S. supply of renewable energy in three years and vowed to invest $15 billion in research and development for alternative energy and fuel-efficient cars. In 2010, U.S. energy from renewables averaged around 8 percent, unchanged from 2009; an updated figure is not yet available.

In his 2010 speech, Obama appeared to acknowledge Republican interests, mentioning “tough choices” on new nuclear power plants and offshore oil and gas exploration. But that year's climate-change bill languished in the Senate over disagreements on carbon caps and new efficiency standards.

Obama's 2011 speech kept to the theme of technological advance under the rubric “Winning the Future.” He vowed that by 2035, 80 percent of the country's electricity would be from clean energy and again called for increased funding for research and development. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce bluntly called the 2035 goal “impossible.” Obama's plan to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years has made essentially no progress. The one project that did begin — in California — since has stalled.

Obama's energy goals have run up against a Congress hostile to costly projects in general and particularly suspicious of environmental regulation. The bankruptcy of solar-panel maker Solyndra Inc., which had received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, furthered the case of critics who argued that spending on clean energy was wasteful.


In every SOTU to date, Obama has called for a tax on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans — in other words, an end to the George W. Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year. Obama agreed to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010 as part of a deal with Republicans that also extended jobless benefits. Last year, Obama and congressional Democrats abandoned plans for a millionaire's surtax in return for Republican backing to extend a payroll tax cut.

Then there is tax reform. Each year, Obama has called for a simplifying the individual tax code and for a lower corporate tax rate. Cutting the 35 percent corporate tax rate has support from some Democrats and Republicans as well as many corporations and business groups. But as Marian Wang explained last year, any effort to overhaul the tax code inevitably means opposition — from groups that benefit from loopholes and tax breaks that reformers hope to repeal.


In his 2009 SOTU, Obama pronounced the closing of Guantanamo Bay a centerpiece of his foreign policy. “In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun,” he said. As ProPublica's coverage has shown, the administration continued to make periodic calls for Guantanamo's closure but could not overcome opposition to it. In March 2011, the administration revised its stance on Guantanamo, allowing for military trials of prisoners there to resume instead of moving them to federal criminal courts.


In last year's SOTU, Obama spoke at length about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and he expressed support for legislation to grant legal residency to some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. The DREAM Act failed to pass Congress in 2010 or 2011. Without a new immigration policy, the administration changed enforcement strategy, and exercises “particular care” in deciding on deportations, especially in the cases of students and young people. According to The New York Times, this approach has been applied unevenly and has caused confusion among enforcers and immigrant families alike.

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