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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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[Joe Biden] has adopted much the same sort of undetailed schedule as his Republican predecessor, Dick Cheney, who was not in the Senate when Obama was only 11 years old.

In fact, today's Biden schedule highlight is a meeting with the chief of transparency for economic recovery. But, unfortunately, the transparency meeting is non-transparent, closed to the press. (See his full schedule below.) Which makes it -- what? -- secret openness? Open secrecy?

The C-SPAN story is another instance of demonstrable, easily understood violations of transparency promises. And, as Phil Klein notes, the broken promise just got more broken:

The Hill reported that, "President Barack Obama sought to muscle House and Senate Democrats to reach an accord on healthcare reform during a daylong White House meeting Wednesday." So in other words, Obama was leading the talks himself, from the White House, which he has absolute control over, and yet he still wouldn't allow C-SPAN cameras in.

In its first year, the Obama administration has indeed created opportunity on transparency, but largely because its legislative overreach and broken promises have made transparency part of the mainstream news cycle, and something that regular voters now worry about, sometimes intensely.

To be sure, Obama himself and some in the transparency activist community have no love for those pushing hardest and loudest for increased transparency this year. They are at Tea Parties around the country every month. They were on phones in July, demanding that representatives come home to answer to constituents instead of ramming health care through in July, as planned. They were at town halls demanding that representatives read the bills they vote on, and give Americans time to read them, too.

The administration dismisses these people as political adversaries with nothing to offer (and sometimes worse), but in fact, they've created the most visible, and popular push for legislative transparency in years, with an assist from Obama's own rhetoric. Obama's broken promises have made the push from his ideological adversaries viable. Despite its political nature, the movement has created a climate that transparency advocates of all partisan stripes should appreciate.

The Tea Party and transparency pressure has borne fruit, even without Obama's help. Several versions of the health-care bill have been posted on the Internet for 72 hours— a benchmark Congress could ignore with impunity before this debate.

As Obama might say, we have reached a historic and "unprecedented consensus" on the need for more transparency, and for that he should thank Tea Partiers, not bash them. We've reached a technology level, which when combined with public pressure on Obama's promises, changes very basic expectations for how government behaves.

As with the C-SPAN promise, the 5-day rule, phantom districts, and lobbyist waivers, Obama’s promises become leverage to create a more restrained, more responsible government under Democrats or Republicans. In a way he didn't expect or intend, Obama's "bold action" and "inspiring rhetoric" have indeed inspired Americans on transparency.

And, for that I thank the president.

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