Why is the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policies different to what was promised?


In the 2008 Presidential election campaign, it seemed that Obama was wanting to stop many of the Bush-era counter-terrorism policies, such as torture, Guantanamo Bay, and excessive surveillance. He even got painted as a terrorist sympathiser, or at least someone who associated with terrorists, during the campaign.

However, now his administration is being criticised for its counter-terrorism policies, such as drone killings, surveillance, and prosecutions of those involved with revealing surveillance programs.

Obama is rated as compromise about restricting warrantless wiretaps, and promise broken about restoring habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants, by PolitiFact.

While some point to Republican opposition to change on some counter-terrorism policies (as mentioned in What has Barack Obama Done Regarding Torture and Indefinite Detention?), I find it hard to believe that that can explain everything.

So what is responsible for the differences between what Obama promised, and what the administration is currently doing? Was he making promises he intended not to honour? Has his views on what counter-terrorism policies are appropriate changed over time? Or is his policies changing so that he gets more support from moderate conservatives?

Andrew Grimm

Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 12 460

4power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely... – SoylentGray – 2013-08-10T05:24:08.470

4This is a question about motivations and is unanswerable. There are a variety of potential factors, including love of power, congressional opposition to desired changes, new information encountered upon entering office, etc. Unless somebody can read the president's mind then this question is unanswerable. – Publius – 2013-08-10T05:38:48.247

6because: politics – None – 2013-08-11T02:52:04.203



In his book, National Security and Double Government, Michael J. Glennon describes how the capacity of those high up in the hierarchy to affect change is very limited. The higher-up may select between several policy options, however the options are prepared by mid-level bureaucrats based on their experience and outlook and the aggregate opinions of low-level bureaucrats.

Leaders who ignore their subordinates advice when giving orders generally don't last very long, because they have no way of distinguishing between an order that is bad for the bureaucracy but good for everyone else, and one that is bad for the bureaucracy and catastrophic for everyone else.

The actual effects are not that far away from the ones that the less-crazy conspiracy theorists describe; however, there is no shady backroom where evil men fake accountability and secretly pull all the strings, it is simply that no one has figured out yet how to create an organization that does not generate its very own momentum and dynamic over time or at least is easier to influence by consciously applied policy.

John Woo

Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 1 687

Stratfor freqiently covers the same ground. – user4012 – 2014-10-23T13:15:32.497

2@DVK I'd love to see that, do you have some links? – John Woo – 2014-10-23T14:32:24.373


One of his very first acts was to order the shutdown of Guantanamo, but Congress moved to block his ability to transfer them to legitimate detention facilities. He's the president, not a king. The fact that he was actively blocked by a co-equal branch of government doesn't really put the onus for an "unkept promise" on his shoulders.

Obama orders Gitmo closure within a day or two of taking office

Congress blocks Gitmo closure

He has stopped the use of torture and black sites.

Executive order 13941

He never said he wouldn't use drone strikes, but I think his record is very poor on that, in terms of checks and balances.

Keep in mind, when Bush started using wiretaps and surveillance that Obama later criticized, he bypassed the courts and did so without required warrants. Obama's continued surveillance has been through the established system of obtaining warrants from the courts.

Wikipedia Article on NSA warrant-less wiretapping, 2001-07

The claims of differences that you cite seem to be much greater than the actuality, or are the result of direct action taken by others to block him.

The degree to which this reality differs from stated goals on the campaign trail is not especially remarkable, when you consider most campaign promises are overly broad, overly simplified, subject to reality and compromise.


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 19 833


In modern US politics politicians tell voters what they want to hear during election times. They pay pollsters to gather information about what voters want to hear and then tell voters that story. Than you have professional speech writers and the candidate delivers the speech.

Bush got elected on a no nation building platform and went to do things like the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war that resulted in far more nationbuilding investment than Kosovo.

Obama who hailed the importance of whistleblowers in his campaign now wages his war against them and the press.

If you expect that campaign rhetoric has anything to do with what the candidate things about the issue than you are just believing a delusion.

If you want to know what a politician does, look at his track record and at the track record of the people with whom he surrounds himself. For myself it took some time to see through Obama claims but when he picked bluedog organiser Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was the day I understood the whole campaign rhetoric as farce.


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 1 616

1When he reneged on his promise as senator to filibuster the FISA Amendments Act that legalized the telecoms' illegal wiretapping after the fact, and then voted for it - that should have told everyone all we needed to know about what kind of president he would be. – J Doe – 2016-12-01T23:05:35.350

Was Bush planning on invading Iraq and Afghanistan before 9/11? Also, "blue dog" means a conservative or moderate Democrat, right? – Andrew Grimm – 2013-08-13T21:15:14.700

The democrat party made a choice to want to support conversative Democrats in conservative electoral districts. Those Democrats are called Blue Dogs. Rahm Emanuel was one of the architects of that policy.

If Obama would have wanted to be a liberal democrat and do what he promised to do he would have to fill the important posts in his administration with liberal democrats. – Christian – 2013-08-13T21:48:19.377

1Whether or not to do nation building is part of the paleo/neocon split. Bush filled his administration with neocons who wanted to go to war in Iraq again to succeed where the first Iraq war failed. – Christian – 2013-08-13T21:51:31.170

1Again, is there any evidence that these things are the case? Politifact.com tracks these promises and showed that Obama keeps or compromises on 75% of them (and not all of the remaining 25% are deliberately broken promises), so it seems silly to suggest there's no consistency between promises and policy. – Publius – 2013-08-14T10:44:31.100

5@Avi: Politfact rates Obama promise of "Increase protections for whistleblowers" as compromise in face of him prosequting more people espionage act persecutions than previous presidents. A promise like "Reform mandatory minimum sentences" gets billed as "Promise kept" because Obama ordered a committee to report on the topic. It seems like it's more about quantity than quality. – Christian – 2013-08-15T05:20:44.597

If you want to perform your own complete analysis of all of Obama's promises and whether or not be broke, compromised on them, or kept them, I'd love to see it. – Publius – 2013-08-15T06:56:55.373

2@Avi: Full complete analysis would be a book that I don't have time to write. – Christian – 2013-08-15T13:06:28.703

Then reference one somebody else did. You don't get away with lower standards of evidence because you don't to put the work necessary into meeting proper standards of evidence. – Publius – 2013-08-15T14:20:50.590

I have to agree with Avi here. You have claims that I believe are true but are not backed up by any references. They would go a long way towards providing credibility to your post – SoylentGray – 2013-08-24T12:45:29.807


We all know what it feels to get into a project or a job and realise that we simply cannot deliver because of a combination of external factors and our own limitations.

The best answer, maybe a short one, is given by President Obama himself in his press dinner speech. He said he had promised change but 'should have been more specific'

"Eight years ago I said it was time to change the tone of our politics. In hindsight, I clearly should have been more specific. Eight years ago, I was a young man full of idealism and vigor. And look at me now, I am gray, grizzled and just counting down the days to my death panel."

Maybe it's because he could not keep his idealism. Maybe it's not possible, as others have mentioned because of the limits of what you can actually do. Maybe the world is much more dangerous that we know (we don't have access to his intelligence briefings), and what did was perfectly reasonable once he became president.

The transcript of his speech is here


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 235

1I agree with this answer, but do note the correspondents dinner speech is very much tongue-in-cheek. It's a comedy routine more than anything. – None – 2016-12-02T13:55:27.620

I realize that the correspondents dinner, is a sort of stand up comedy routine, but beyond the humour what he said does reveal something of his President Obama's personality, the fact that he mentions his idealism at all, and the hints that there has been a change. – stackex555 – 2016-12-05T04:39:58.703


When you're running a campaign and you aren't actually required to completely think through the consequences of hypothetical actions, it's very easy to make promises that you intend to keep, but in reality might break.

However, when it comes time to execute, reality kicks in and you might have second thoughts, or potentially you can't always do what You've promised.

There are 2 issues here.

  • It's entirely possible that Obama changed his mind on some issues, possibly after counsel from advisers that he didn't have during the campaign. It might not seem like it when you're arguing with someone, but people reflect and change their minds on issues all the time.

  • Obama is not a king(he's not even really a legislator). He still has to work with numerous other bodies such as Congress and the supreme court. He has to go through a process in order to get certain things done, and sometimes he just doesn't have the support to pass the policy that he wants to pass.

Sam I am says Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 6 956

In addition to not having the advisors he would probably not have clearance as a candidate, so he would not have information that the general public does not have access to, which could account for changing his views. – kleineg – 2014-08-06T17:37:33.673

1@eugeneSeidel Yes, and under that separation the President is the executive branch, not the legislative. – Shadur – 2016-05-26T07:18:09.893

While your points are potentially true, for the question to be answered you need to demonstrate that they're true and relevant. – Publius – 2013-08-12T22:15:26.503

4In the realm of counter-terrorism issue 2 is a joke. The Obama administraion like Clapper lie to congress about the extend to which they spie on US citizens and Obama waged the war in Lybia without congressal approval. Court get told that they aren't supposed to involve themsevles in national security matters. Obama promized to reduce presidential power but acts like a king in the national security space. – Christian – 2013-08-13T17:17:02.073

This is just opining. "He's not even really a legislator": Huh? Separation of powers ring a bell? – Eugene Seidel – 2013-08-24T17:17:52.773


I don't know that there's any reason to think that there's any simple cause.

It's a combination of factors:

  1. The world is changing
  2. The president is not a king; he has to compromise with others
  3. He has lots of priorities and he can't make every battle number one priority

I think that plain and simple government reflects the people. And this is not the #1 priority for very many Americans. After Obama took office we all found that the economic situation was far worse than expected, and Obama become focused on other issues.

How many Democrats or Independents voted for Romney because they thought that he was an improvement on Obama based on his expected performance on anti-terrorism issues? Very very few I would think.


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 231


What a politician promises and what a politician delivers is almost invariably not the same. He gave promises to get elected, but the truth is, he is a big government politician and he will use government to suit the agenda of his constituents.

What do I mean by big government? It's admittedly a little bit vague. However, a government large enough that the public no longer can maintain control of it would be a big government. In other words, the government becomes an entity which acts on its own will rather than on the will of the governed.


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 319


True. "Big government" is a dog-whistle term. But still true.

– LateralFractal – 2014-10-22T05:04:06.770

1@LateralFractal What's the hidden meaning of "big government?" – lazarusL – 2014-10-22T12:51:28.933

@lazarusL Too big government. i.e. Socialist. – LateralFractal – 2014-10-22T12:58:01.603

1@LateralFractal I thought that was the literal meaning ;) – lazarusL – 2014-10-22T13:15:46.203

@LateralFractal I would like to point out that when people say "socialist" what they seem to mean is Marxist. There are forms of socialism that do not rely on big government, and even oppose it. – Politicoid – 2014-10-22T13:22:17.547

3Currently US socialism is applied through government services; hence 'big government' substitutes for 'socialist' for the average pundit. This substitute is extra handy for correlating socialism (which some people loath) with bureaucracy (which everyone loathes). – LateralFractal – 2014-10-22T13:50:29.027

@LateralFractal - I'd like an example of actual real larger-scale socialist government that did NOT have bureaucracy – user4012 – 2014-10-23T00:37:03.987


@DVK Ask Politicoid. As I find frame debates recursive, tiring and falling back personal axiomic preferences anyway. Is A = B or A = !B or A = B but B != A, etc, etc.

– LateralFractal – 2014-10-23T00:51:32.743

I find comment chatter inane and doucey... Yet here we are. – SoylentGray – 2014-10-24T00:34:57.160

Equating the words "Big Government" with "Socialism" is unfair to Socialism – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2014-10-27T17:08:50.603

I agree. There are many forms of socialism that rely on limited or even no government. – Politicoid – 2014-10-29T04:54:49.623


Obama pretended to be left during elections, with much of left-wing promises, but actually he is one of the most right-wing presidents ever.

Obama definitely falls in the right-wing camp, with Clinton, Reagan and Bush the Younger. The difference is that Reagan more spoke about his right-wing views while Obama tries to deceive the public, in this respect he is more similar to Clinton.


Posted 2013-08-10T04:13:42.543

Reputation: 8 839

1Not sure about "most," but certainly he's a cautious centrist and not the screaming radical liberal his political foes like to paint him as. – PoloHoleSet – 2016-11-29T23:03:11.123

8Do you have any evidence to support this statement? – Publius – 2013-08-10T17:35:36.373