Barack Obama’s pledge to bring transparency to the White House gets A for intention, but a lower grade for implementation

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama has been pounded recently (even by Jon Stewart) for failing to honor his pledge to televise health-care negotiations on C-SPAN. He has been dogged by the White House’s inability to post all of their legislation online five days before he signed it, as promised.

Liberals are mad about his use of the state secrets privilege. Conservatives are enraged that he has allowed Democrats in Congress to hammer out the final details of enormous spending bills – the $787 billion stimulus and the $871 billion health-care bill still under negotiation – behind closed doors.

But transparency groups say Obama’s doing a good job — relatively speaking.

“Look at what he’s compared to,” said Jim Harper, of the libertarian Cato Institute. “He contrasts very well with the Bush administration, which didn’t even pretend to want to be transparent. So this is an improvement over a very low baseline.”

Harper, who has been one of Obama’s toughest critics on some transparency pledges, said that unlike him, much of the “transparency community” is to the left and “sympathetic to Obama.”

“The perception of him is maybe a little higher than he should be, but it’s not that he’s completely failed,” he said. “I’m sure there are people on the right who have just decided he has failed, but I think that starts from a political assumption.”

Obama came to the White House a year ago promising to change the way Washington does business. On Monday, a group of four “reform” groups – Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG – gave the president high marks. Much of the grade was based on Obama’s work to limit the influence of lobbyists in government.

But transparency watchers acknowledge that most of the White House’s agenda on the issue remains undone.

“A lot of what they’ve done that is most significant is announced intentions or plans, so the proof is going to be in the pudding,” the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, John Wonderlich, said.

The president most recently has been burned by his campaign promise to open up health-care reform negotiations to C-SPAN cameras. It was a pledge that made sense to even the most casual political observer, but as it has become clear that Obama has no intention of following through, it has become a potent criticism.

“My hunch is that this episode will do considerable harm to Obama’s standing with the public,” Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote Friday. “It annihilates what had been at the core of the Obama campaign and the Obama appeal: the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics; that transparency would be a watchword of his presidency.”

There is also continuing debate over how fully the White House has complied with the president’s promise to post legislation online for five days before he signs it. Harper said the White House has done this with only six out of 124 bills.

Harper includes Post Office and court house name designations — there have been 34 so far — in his tally.

The White House said Harper’s numbers are invalid because he does not count a number of bills that were posted for five days before signing, but were not easily found from the White House website’s main page. There were 47 of these by Harper’s count.

That leaves 37 bills that were not posted before signing.

Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, said that “the commitment always recognized that there would be exigent circumstances.”

“Sometimes, for instance for national security reasons, you need to move quickly. There’s always been a recognition that there were going to be compelling policy reasons to move more quickly, and that has sometimes been the case,” he told The Daily Caller.

“We have substantially complied with that commitment. We are way ahead of all other administrations in doing that, we’ve made good progress, and we are going to keep on.”

Harper has been more positive about the administration’s efforts of late, writing recently that the “dismal” success rate would be “rising soon” because the White House had posted a link on its main Web site leading viewers to bills awaiting the president’s signature.

“Did the administration fail to execute on this simple promise from the beginning? Yes,” he wrote. “But the good news is that we’re going to see implementation.”

On other issues, Obama has angered some of his strongest liberal and libertarian backers who expected the new president to change the government’s approach to counterterrorism law, particularly when it came to using the state secrets privilege to seek broad dismissal of cases that might expose privileged or damaging information.

“Our most serious disappointment is the Obama administration’s reliance on an overbroad definition of the state secrets privilege,” said Joanne Mariner, director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch.

For example, the Justice Department has upheld a Bush administration position by seeking the dismissal, citing state secrets, of a lawsuit by five men who allege that a private flight planning company and Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen Dataplan, was contracted by the CIA to fly them to secret prison camps in other countries where they were tortured.

On the positive side of the ledger: the creation late last month of a National Declassification Center to expedite the declassification of government documents, the decision in the summer to release four Justice Department memos from the Bush administration that dealt with harsh interrogation, some specific steps to enhance responses to Freedom of Information requests, the release of White House visitor logs, the banning of lobbyists from conversations with White House officials about stimulus money or from advisory committees, the release of large amounts of raw data at data.gov, and, for the most part, the government effort to track how stimulus money is spent.

“There remains a lot of work to be done, but I think if you look at the actual menu of accomplishments, we have made great progress,” Eisen said. “You had prior administrations that litigated for years over just a handful of their White House visitor records, and we just put 30,000 of them online for the world to see.”

Advocates consistently mentioned the administration’s open government initiative, which directed all agencies to come up with their own transparency plans within 120 days, as significant.

“Everything we have heard from this administration publicly and privately is they really truly believe in this, and they are really truly intent on making greater openness happen,” the executive director of Openthegovernment.com, Patrice McDermott, said. “It’s going to be hard work for all of us to make sure that the agencies actually do consult with the public and do implement this to the fullest extent.”

McDermott said “the problem with the directive is … there’s no enforcement built in to [it].”

“That is a very great concern. But other than the intelligence community I don’t think most agencies are going to try to evade this,” she said.

The Cato Institute’s Harper disagreed.

“It is contrary to the interests of agencies to really, really be transparent. Agencies, and the White House, if left to their own devices, will mouth good words about transparency, but when it comes time to deliver they will avoid it,” he said.

“Transparency is something we will have to take from the government. It won’t be a gift.”

Here is Reason.tv’s take on Obama’s C-SPAN pledge: