President goes promise-freePromises, promises

WASHINGTON—Read Barack Obama’s lips: no new promises.

Not now, at least. It’s a long way from May to November, but so far the president’s campaign speeches have been strikingly free of new pledges.

The president’s early pitch to voters is heavy on promises kept and promises still in the works. (Never mind about those pesky promises broken.)

A typical Obama campaign speech includes a “change is...” refrain that showcases the greatest hits of his first term:

Change is rescuing the auto industry.

Change is health care reform. Change is raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

Change is ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.

Change is the Lilly Ledbetter law to ensure women get pay equal to men.

And so on. What does it say that one of Obama’s biggest applause lines is still his reference to the Ledbetter law — signed on his ninth day in office?

“His issue is performance, not promises,” says Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution. “His message is that he’s done a lot to help people, and he doesn’t want to over-promise for the second term.”

Obama’s springtime script is a big change from his campaign of four years ago. But it fits the playbook for incumbent presidents seeking re-election.

Job One, particularly in the age of attack ads, is to define your opponent. Obama is largely leaving that chore to campaign surrogates and early advertising for now.

Job Two is to remind voters of your own accomplishments, and how you’ll build on them. This is where Obama is right now.

His campaign’s new “Forward” ad showcases the end of the war in Iraq as “a promise kept by a president who understands America’s promise.”

His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has been quick to mock the “forward” theme, saying: “Forward, what, over the cliff?”

Obama needs to counter such GOP arguments that he hasn’t done enough — and what he’s done has hurt more than helped — before he adds any new promises to the mix.

So far, his political focus has been on fundraising, but that’s about to change. Today he holds his first two official re-election rallies, in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia.

University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan, an expert on the presidency, said Obama is taking victory laps on foreign policy and national security successes such as the end of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden because Republicans have been so successful at running down his achievements.

First lady Michelle Obama, in her campaign speeches, has been coupling her husband’s message of promises kept with a plea for patience.

“The reality is that real change is slow,” she said at a recent fundraiser. “And it never happens all at once.”

Obama, too, said that for all the progress he seeks to highlight, much more remains to be done.

He tolda fundraiser late last month that he won’t be satisfied until more has been done — to create jobs, to improve the country’s education system, to bring troops home from Afghanistan.

“So I’m going to work harder than I did in 2008, and if you guys are willing to join me, then we’re going to have four more years to be able to finish what we started,” he said.

It’s a different tone from Obama’s 2008 campaign, with its blizzard of ambitious promises and “yes-we-can” optimism.