public policy, policy research, public policy analysis, social issues, political change, American government

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Dec
20
2008

Obama Transparency Talk

Apparently Obama’s response to Chicago Tribune reporter John McCormack’s questions about the Blagojevich affair have riled certain media commentators, who are now questioning Obama’s commitment to transparency. What a bunch of whiners. They either don’t understand the role of transparency in public policy, are desperate to make some news about something, or are just exaggerating the issue to pressure Obama into saying something that will excite them.

Here’s what happened during a recent news conference by President-elect Obama:

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Obama Transparency Questioned

To this, commentators offered numerous complaints. For example, here’s Ethel Fenig at the American Thinker,

In other words, asking a legitimate question about Obama’s relationship with his state’s governor, even though it was not the purpose of the press conference, indicates The Office of the President-Elect will cut off all reporters who probe too uncomfortably in sensitive areas. A troubling message.

And CNN’s Campbell Brown,

Mr. President-elect, this is the second time I have observed you doing this. Cutting off a reporter because the question didn’t suit you. Mr. President-elect, this sort of approach reminds a lot of us of the current administration now packing up to go, and it frankly doesn’t fly in a democracy. You don’t get to choose the questions you get asked at a news conference.

… You’ve made a deal with the prosecutor to keep a lid on certain information about this investigation until next week. Fine. But that doesn’t give you a blanket excuse to dismiss any and all questions associated with Blagojevich or anything else. You are the one who embraced openness, and you could stand to be a little more open to it.

..These are desperate times for many Americans and most of this country wants you to succeed. But you will not succeed if you discard the very ideals you promoted during your campaign: directness, honesty, candor, transparency, openness.

Wow, he declines to answer a question twice and he’s already being chided like small child for ruining democracy? But here’s the thing: Sure, you don’t get to choose the questions, but in democracy you can choose whether to answer them. Isn’t it reasonable to wait a week because the investigators had asked him not to say anything?

Now what we don’t want is the President of the United States making all kinds of misstatements and half-baked guesses about what happened. It would probably make headlines and keep the reporters awake, but it would be horrible presidential leadership. A little information control is reasonable. Its not like the Obama team has “lost” basically all the emails of two presidential terms, like Bush did.

What is Transparency?

These reporters are confusing the importance of transparency in pubic policy with answering every question asked. But it is ridiculous to think that the President of the United States has to answer every question immediately. Moreover, its petty to start whining that transparency, and in fact democracy, is gone because a few questions weren’t answered. This perverts the meaning of governmental transparency and also distorts the facts.

Transparency in government is about making information known to people about the operations of government. Obama has been a leader in this area. He has stated his goals as such things as:

  • Lifting the curtain on connections between lobbyists and Members of Congress by creating a centralized database of lobbying reports, congressional ethics records, and campaign finance filings available on the internet in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format,
  • Expanding lobbying disclosure rules to include lobbyists seeking government contracts and presidential pardons,
  • Enforcing congressional lobbying laws and ethics rules through an independent entity,
  • Creating an “contracts and influence” database which will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and ensuring citizens have easy access to contract details and contractor performance.

As part of his effort to improve transparency, President-elect Obama also contributed to The Coburn-Obama transparency Act, which established a database for citizen’s to explore how government money is spent and where it comes from. This is a good example of what transparency in government means.

If one wanted to look at the evidence, rather than a couple of selected incidences, one would also see that Obama’s team has been relatively better than others about providing transparency.

Jennifer LaFleur in article posted on the Huffington Post lists many cases where “President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team seems to be following through with its promise of transparency by posting documents from its meetings with industry and advocacy groups.”

Further, according to the Washington Post,

There is one important area where Obama and Bush differ on the issue — in the court of public opinion. In a recent national poll conducted by the Post/ABC, two-thirds of the sample said that Obama was “honest and trustworthy” while just 22 percent said he was not. Those numbers compare very favorably with Bush of whom, in a January 2007 Post/ABC survey, 40 percent said he was “honest and trustworthy” while 57 percent said he was not.

Not only are voters willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on the transparency issue but he has also drawn praise in many circles for the number (12) of press conferences he has held and questions (51) he has taken since winning the presidency.

Reporters are Bored

I think the underlying complaint is that Obama’s message control discipline keeps the sensationalism out of the headlines, and that bores news reporters. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quotes Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard as saying that Obama is “trying to be so boring that no one will notice that he has avoided taking a position on virtually every issue that we’ve seen arise over the past three months.” Milbank goes on to say

The whole thing [the aforementioned press conference] might have ended in snores if McCormick hadn’t piped up about Blagojevich.

I’m kind of thinking that the real problem here is that all that talk about public policy issues, changing government, and cabinet appointments are boring the reporters.

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