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On Transparency, Obama Fails Big, Succeeds Small


1:00 PM, Jan 14, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The combination of Obama's blatantly broken pledge to show health-care negotiations on C-SPAN and his approaching one-year anniversary of his inauguration has spurred a round of reflection on just how transparent the administration has been.

One group of transparency advocates (many of them left-leaning) dutifully delivered pretty dubious "A" grade on transparency to the president.

The glowing "report card" from Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG highlights a series of policies enacted by the Obama administration over the last year aimed at increasing government transparency and limiting the influence of lobbyists and other interest groups. The steps have included a ban on lobbyist gifts; restrictions on the hiring of lobbyists; publication of White House visitor logs and other records; and a move to bar lobbyists from serving on advisory boards.

That prompted another transparency organization, The Sunlight Foundation, to declare the "A" premature, giving Obama something more along the lines of an "E" for effort.

Overall, 2009 was a good year for transparency mostly because it was in government’s and the public’s consciousness like never before, and we’ve recapped the year pretty exhaustively.

These things are all true, but we’re certainly not to a place of openness in the executive, and in fact, we have a long way to go before we get transparency results that we can hang our hat on.

It is imperative that the onus remains on the White House to fulfill their big promises, and incumbent upon the media and we as citizens to hold them accountable for doing so.

Within the wonky, back-and-forth world of transparency activists, you will often find more praise for Obama's transparency than in the general public and conventional wisdom. As activists, they're more familiar with the technical, and sometimes mundane, accomplishments that the intersection of new technology and the Obama campaign have produced, such as the promising Open Government Directive:

“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, 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].”

But Obama's problem on transparency is that he may succeed in certain ways, but he fails so spectacularly and publicly that he eclipses his successes. See for reference: The C-SPAN promise, the legislation online for five days before signing promise, the creation of the lobbyist ban, which precipitated the creation of the lobbyist waiver, and the very public pitfalls of making a $787 billion dollar, hastily written giveaway transparent after the fact. 

And, today, the administration once again fails ostentatiously on transparency once again, with this doozy: Joe Biden meets on transparency; meeting closed to press

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