It is the conventional wisdom that presidential candidates’ campaign promises are meaningless. They aren’t, for two reasons. First, the promises reflect the candidate’s assessment of what factions he or she needs to appease to get into office, and these will be the same factions that must be appeased to govern successfully, and, ultimately, to be returned to office. Secondly, human life is shaped by inertia, and since new presidents have to do something or other, the simplest course that requires the least thought is to simply try to implement what they’ve said they would try to implement. There are exceptions to this, of course, but because infidelities are more noteworthy than episodes of quiet loyalty, these exceptions tend to get a misleading and disproportionate amount of attention.
For various reasons, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. I had many reservations. One of them was that I noticed (as almost no one outside of the space advocacy community did) that his campaign literature on fiscal policy included a line about the savings that could be made by crippling NASA. I didn’t take it seriously, because I assumed that the whole fiscal plan was more or less meaningless. In the end, Obama canceled Constellation, the whole architecture for long-term American space exploration. He also promised some sort of comprehensive health care reform based on the worst of both worlds premise of a statutorily structured “partnership” between government and the insurance industry which did not support the equity values and efficiency of single payer, or the liberty values and efficiency of total privatization. I reasoned that Democrats have been talking the talk about health care reform all my life, all my parents’ lives, and no one has ever actually done anything about it, so I didn’t need to give any serious thought to alternative plans and their respective degrees of political support. In the end, Obama delivered more or less what he promised.
The moral of my story is not how remarkable it is that Obama has done, and to a remarkable degree, what he said he would do, or what one could reasonably infer from what he said he would do (truly, liberal outrage about broken promises here baffles me, as his performance has been easily predictable from available information before election day). Rather, the moral of the story is a paraphrase of the hoary cliche: be careful what you vote for. You might just get it.