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Top 10 US Presidential Promises That Were Never Fulfilled

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Jason C. McLean

We don't know who first said that political promises were made to be broken, but they were clearly on to something. For this list, we'll be looking at promises made by Presidents either while candidates or sitting as POTUS that for one reason or another never came to pass, from Ending the Iraq War, to Limited Executive Power and Eradicating Drugs. WatchMojo counts down the Top 10 US Presidential Promises That Were Never Fulfilled.

Special thanks to our user mac121mr0 for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at https://www.WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top+10+U.S.+Presidential+Campaign+Promises+That+Were+Never+Fulfilled.


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Script written by Jason C McLean

Top 10 US Presidential Promises That Were Never Fulfilled

We don't know who first said that political promises were made to be broken, but they were clearly on to something. Welcome to and today we'll be counting down the Top 10 US Presidential Promises That Were Never Fulfilled.

For this list, we'll be looking at promises made by Presidents either while candidates or sitting as POTUS that for one reason or another never came to pass. We'll be factoring in the audacity of the promise and just how far in the opposite direction the President in question ultimately went.

#10: Ending the Iraq War

George W. Bush
As staged photo ops go, George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished Speech was remarkable for two reasons: the over-the-top grandeur of a landing on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight jacket to make an announcement... and just how misleading the promise contained in that announcement turned out to be. Not only did Bush forecast a quick end to the Iraq War, something that wouldn’t happen for another eight years when a new President was in office, he also claimed that the end of the war had already begun. Bush would later say he regretted the choice of wording on the sign, but also defend himself by arguing that he never made any such promise.

#9: Limited Executive Power

Thomas Jefferson
Unfulfilled presidential promises aren’t limited to the last few decades, or even this century. Thomas Jefferson, the third ever POTUS, a founding father and the author of the Declaration of Independence, really didn’t like all the federal spending and expansion of the Executive Branch that happened under his predecessors Washington and Adams. He promised to be frugal and limit executive power to what the Constitution said it should be. He managed to keep his word for three years... then the Louisiana Purchase happened in 1803. Jefferson’s government paid France $15 million for 828,000 square miles of territory, doubling the size of the US. This was one of the biggest expansions of executive power ever.

#8: Eradicate Drugs

George H.W. Bush

While you may be more familiar with the elder Bush’s whispered one-liner broken promise not to raise taxes, George H. W.’s unfulfilled pledge to eradicate the drug problem from America and, in particular, from poorer neighborhoods and public housing projects, was arguably his greatest failure to deliver. His roll-out was bold and even featured him holding up a bag of confiscated crack cocaine in a televised address from the Oval Office. His plan, which treated drugs primarily as a criminal justice issue (rather than one of treatment) by massively increasing funding to law enforcement, seemingly yielded little result other than the militarization of police, with drug use continuing on unperturbed.

#7: A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage

Herbert Hoover
1928 was a time of great prosperity in America and Herbert Hoover and the Republicans were promising even more of the same if elected. Contrary to popular belief, the famous line “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” wasn’t a direct quote from Hoover, but rather one of the slogans his campaign used. It was, however, in perfect keeping with his overall key promise of continued prosperity and plenty for the American people, a promise he clearly was no longer able to keep after the stock market crashed in 1929, kicking off the Great Depression.

#6: Staying Out of WWII

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
This is one unfulfilled promise that we can trace to a particular event. When FDR was campaigning for his third term against Republican Wendell Willkie, he promised that he would do everything possible to prevent the US from entering the Second World War even telling military recruits “you boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” This fit the mood of the country, and Roosevelt won reelection with 55% of the vote. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, however, FDR called it “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan, then on their ally Germany a few days later. And the rest... is history.

#5: Staying Out of WWI

Woodrow Wilson
Remaining neutral during the First World War and focusing on domestic issues wasn’t just a one-time campaign promise for President Woodrow Wilson - it was a key part of his messaging and plans for the country. Wilson even offered to serve as mediator before the guns started firing in 1914. Even after a German submarine sunk the Lusitania, killing over 100 American civilians, Wilson still campaigned for re-election promising not to get involved. However, when Germany began targeting US shipping vessels and even tried to get Mexico to side with them if the US entered the war, Wilson went against his long-standing philosophy and asked Congress to declare war in 1917.

#4: Closing Guantanamo Bay

Barack Obama
The fact that this promise was unfulfilled clearly wasn’t lost on the President who made it. Near the end of his second term, Barack Obama said that one of his biggest regrets as President was not closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on his first day in office. Shutting down the detention center set up under George W. Bush was one of Obama’s key campaign promises, and he did try to close it within a year of taking office through executive order and kept trying throughout his two terms, even as late as 2016. Each time he was stopped by Congress. While he didn’t succeed, you can’t say he didn’t try.

#3: Tightening Spending

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is probably known for one thing above all else: The New Deal. It was a series of programs like Social Security designed to combat the Great Depression that FDR enacted shortly after assuming office in 1933. Together they amount to one of the largest one-time lasting increases of government spending ever. Of course, given his legacy, it’s easy to forget that FDR had campaigned by railing against the Hoover Administration's spending and promising his administration would tighten their belts. While The New Deal was a success, it was also the result of an unfulfilled promise of historic proportions and significance.

#2: Universal Healthcare

Harry S. Truman
The idea of a universal healthcare system was part of the American political discourse in both the 2016 primaries and following the election thanks to Bernie Sanders. It was also on the table for a while when President Obama was putting together the Affordable Care Act in 2009. President Truman, though, was the first to promise healthcare would be treated as a right not a privilege in 1949 as part of his Fair Deal. He couldn’t overcome opposition from the medical and insurance industries though, so it didn’t happen. When Lyndon Johnson did finally pass Medicare for people over 65 in the 1960s, he invited Truman to the ceremony, calling him “The Daddy of Medicare”.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

Repeal Obamacare Within First 100 Days
Donald Trump

Human Mission to Mars
George W. Bush

Jobs Through Tax Cuts
Ronald Reagan

#1: Staying Out Of Vietnam

Lyndon B. Johnson
When Lyndon B. Johnson was running for re-election in 1964, the US was already in conflict with North Vietnam, but they hadn’t sent in ground troops. While LBJ’s own government was secretly making plans to escalate military action, the President was busy promising the opposite on the campaign trail, saying he wouldn’t send American boys into a reckless war to do the job, as he put it, that Asian boys should be doing. While he did try to end the war diplomatically shortly after the election, on May 3rd, 1965, ground troops landed and Johnson would go on to become the symbol of state aggression for the American anti-war movement of the 60s.


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