Clinton makes a lot of promises — which can she keep?

Hillary Clinton backs immigration reform, debt-free college, equal pay for women, new gun safety laws, raising the minimum wage, expanding Obamacare and sweetening Social Security benefits.
Hillary Clinton backs immigration reform, debt-free college, equal pay for women, new gun safety laws, raising the minimum wage, expanding Obamacare and sweetening Social Security benefits.
(Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

When Hillary Clinton reaches the point in her campaign rallies where she rattles off the things she promises to do in Washington, the list grows very long, very quickly.

If she reaches the White House, that list will need to get much shorter in a hurry.

For the record:

1:04 a.m. May 21, 2024This story originally reported that President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2008. Obama took office in 2009.

That prospect makes this an anxious time for policy advocates who back Clinton and those seeking to influence her.

For Clinton, as with every president, the window for transformational policies will almost certainly be small. Political capital from an election gets spent fast, and even the Clinton campaign concedes Democrats are unlikely to win full control of Congress, meaning some compromises with Republicans likely would constrain the agenda of a Clinton White House.


Clinton will need to choose among the priorities she has talked about at rallies like the ones she conducted last week in Denver and Las Vegas: The biggest investment in infrastructure since World War II, immigration reform, debt-free college, equal pay for women, expanded rights for labor unions, an overhaul of the nation’s multibillion- dollar electricity grid, new gun safety laws.

The dilemma faced by advocates for those causes differs from the one faced by groups backing Donald Trump, who has offered far fewer policy proposals.

On the Democratic party’s left, in particular, progressives find themselves jockeying for position in these final months of the presidential race. Research has shown that the promises given the most attention at this point of the campaign are the ones candidates are most likely to pursue after the election.

The groups are cajoling, confronting and corralling the Clinton campaign and potential sympathizers in Congress to move their crusades to the top of her 100-day agenda.

“There is finite time, and there are only so many things a brand new administration can accomplish,” said Lisa Gilbert, who helps lead the campaign finance reform effort at Public Citizen.

“We have seen candidates talk about this before and not really follow through,” she added. “The question is the urgency and priority when a candidate first gets into office, and their willingness to use that capital.”


Activists are using every tool at their disposal, and for those in Gilbert’s coalition, that included the recent Netroots Nation conference of progressives, where Clinton promised to push a constitutional amendment restricting money in politics within a month of taking office.

The candidate was well aware that keeping the issue high on her agenda is crucial to persuading erstwhile Bernie Sanders supporters to align with her – even if proposing such an amendment may have more symbolic than substantive value.

But the folks fighting to get money out of politics are competing with backers of some other heady plans on Clinton’s plate. Most of the issues, like campaign finance reform, have been policy quagmires for years.

An examination of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s convention acceptance speeches and how they line up on several key issues. Full coverage at

That’s one reason why candidates who win a party’s third term in the White House often have a rough time — the easy victories have mostly been used up in the preceding eight years.

Clinton is vowing to secure a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in this country illegally, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to expand Obamacare, to sweeten benefits under Social Security, and to take more steps to slow climate change. Most of those ideas have been on President Obama’s agenda, too, but have fallen victim to the same opposition forces Clinton would face.


Asked recently what the Democratic nominee would pursue immediately, the first thing her campaign chairman, John Podesta, mentioned was the path to citizenship – among the heaviest of policy lifts.

A sophisticated, multimillion dollar campaign has been working behind the scenes for months to keep the immigration issue at the top of Clinton’s agenda and to prepare lawmakers to move fast should Clinton assume the presidency.

“We are making sure people know there are also Republicans across the country working toward this,” said Todd Schulte, president of, a group created by technology and other companies to push for a path to citizenship.

The group has busily recruited organizations typically aligned with the GOP to pressure Republican lawmakers to cut a deal if Clinton wins. The Partnership for a New American Economy, whose co-chairs include former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, has just unleashed its own lobbying and marketing push aimed at nudging Congress and keeping immigration reform Clinton’s top priority.

For all the positioning, the biggest impact activists may have is to influence who shows up to vote. Advocates are lobbying their supporters to turn out in the hope they can credibly claim a significant hand in an eventual victory.

“We have made our case to members that turning out in record numbers sends a message about what our priorities are and what our expectations are,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.


The pressure SEIU’s members put on Clinton to embrace a $15 minimum wage helped bring the issue to the top of her list of priorities. Henry said members will be out on the streets continuing the push in a day of demonstration in early September.

Environmental groups are similarly doing everything they can to nudge so-called “climate voters” to the polls.

“We want to show a movement that is not just useful to winning elections, but can provide momentum for getting bold proposals passed across the board,” said Jamie Henn, spokesman for The group was instrumental in pressuring Clinton to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a project to ship oil from Canadian tar sands that was ultimately rejected by the Obama administration.

Neera Tanden, who was Clinton’s policy advisor in 2008, says that if the Democratic nominee wins, her agenda could be shaped in large part by how Republican lawmakers perceive her victory. Tanden expects those lawmakers would take a hard look at which voting groups abandoned the GOP and seek compromises with Clinton that could help lure those voters back.

“Have they lost because of the Latino vote?” she said at an Atlantic magazine panel during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “Have they lost because of the women’s vote? Have they lost because they went on the far-right crazy on foreign policy? Or for some other reason? That is what they will, for some very short period of time, think of fixing.”

Sometimes, happenstance, rather than organized action, forces a candidate’s hand. A gaffe by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe , a longtime Clinton ally, forced her campaign to declare in unequivocal language last month that the massive Pacific trade deal Obama is pursuing would be quickly abandoned in a Clinton administration.


McAuliffe had told a reporter that Clinton’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was just lip service. Progressives were enraged, and the campaign disavowed McAuliffe in language that eliminated any wiggle room Clinton had left herself.

Activists are hoping for more such uncomfortable moments. Even as Clinton embraces the language and grievances expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, many of those who are part of it are skeptical she is going to pursue its agenda, which includes radical shifts in the criminal justice system.

“Our job is to push her, our job is to push the party, our job is to push our demands to be met,” said Los Angeles advocate Mark Anthony Johnson, who helped draft the recently published Movement for Black Lives platform.

“We want radical transformation, not reactive changes.”

As Clinton keeps making promises, the one promise her campaign acknowledges she can’t make is that she will fulfill all of them.

At the Philadelphia panel, Podesta reflected on how quickly Republican opposition hardened against Obama’s agenda of hope and change after he took office on Jan. 20, 2009.


“The honeymoon for Barack Obama,” Podesta said — “it didn’t get through January 20.”

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