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Presidents and Their Audacious Promises

Presidents and Their Audacious Promises

By Mike Memoli - March 10, 2009

Despite fighting two wars abroad and facing the worst economic crisis in decades at home, President Obama made a whopper of a pledge in his first address to Congress on February 24. The new president promised to "launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time."

Obama repeated the promise at last week's much-publicized health care summit. Some would say passing a major health care overhaul is a tough enough prospect. But the president was aiming higher, following an example set by his predecessors in making an ambitious - one might say audacious - bid for history.

In Pictures: 10 of History's Boldest Presidential Promises

In the past century, presidents have promised to eradicate poverty (LBJ) and drugs (Bush 41); eliminate nuclear weapons (Carter) and create a global defense system (Reagan); link the nation with interstate highways (Eisenhower) and drive on them in hydrogen-fueled cars (Bush 43). With a few notable exceptions, most of these promises remain unfulfilled.

Ironically, one of the most intrepid promises ever made by a president is etched in history for its remarkable success. In May, 1961, responding to the Soviets' continuing domination of space-related achievements, President John F. Kennedy publicly proclaimed that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish," Kennedy said.

Kennedy's promise was so bold and so successful it became the touchstone for future presidential promises. Richard Nixon invoked the "Man on the Moon" achievement as the basis of his own audacious promise to - yes, you guessed it - cure cancer.

"The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease," Nixon told Congress on January 22, 1971. "Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal."

The fact that Obama is now making the same pledge 38 years later demonstrates what tricky business bold promises can be. But, presidential historians say, grand promises are what the public expects of our national leaders.

"The public is understanding of presidents, that they make commitments that they want to meet, but recognize that they will be difficult to reach," said Martha Kumar, a professor at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project. "They would rather have them reach for a good goal than not do so. I think they're less worried about whether they actually get there, but they want them to make the effort."

Though grand promises have come at various points in a president's tenure, they seem to have most often been made early in administrations. Newly-inaugurated presidents use that brief window of post-election political goodwill to sell the pillars of their agenda. But as time passes, they may then use the shock and awe of a major promise to reignite momentum on related initiatives. Again, Kennedy's promise of a moon landing came at the peak of the Cold War innovation race; Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty" came as he launched a major domestic agenda; George W. Bush vowed to end tyranny across the world as he sought to maintain support for a war on terrorism.

Presidents were less likely to go bold in election years, returning instead to the "core themes that are going to get them re-elected," said Professor Gerhard Peters, co-founder of the American Presidency Project at the University of California - Santa Barbara. "Presidents are smart enough to know that saying you're going to cure cancer probably isn't going to get you re-elected."

And some presidents have made more significant promises than others. LBJ was a president who spoke in especially expansive terms, Peters said, citing the opening of Johnson's first State of the Union address in 1964:

"Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic."

Johnson was successful in pushing through some of these plans, especially after a landslide victory in the election that fall. But there is some risk in overreaching.

"You don't want to be liberally sprinkling them about," Kumar said. "You want to be restrained in the number promises you make, because in an election campaign you've made so many that you have to back away from. When you do make a strong commitment, the earlier promises you make may come back in the form of questions from reporters and others as well."

At the beginning of 2004, for example, President Bush promised in his State of the Union address to start an effort to put an American on Mars. The goal faded quickly as his reelection bid got underway but, "every once and a while someone would bring that up at a briefing if they wanted to be unpleasant," Kumar said.

Even though scores of unfulfilled promises litter the highway of presidential history, don't expect our highest elected officials to abandon the practice anytime soon. These pledges, whether ultimately successful or not, serve a valuable function of inspiring the country to dream big and to rally the public to a president's cause with a sense of national unity and purpose.

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Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at mmemoli@realclearpolitics.com

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