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Time and again in 2008, Barack Obama promised that, as president, he would usher in a new age of transparency in government. A day after taking office, Obama posted a memorandum to the White House website, outlining his vision for a transparent administration. It reads, in part:
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
Has President Obama kept his promise? Kira Davis, a Citizen Watchdog from California, asked the President that very question directly during Obama’s most recent Google Hangout, his preferred method of interacting with citizens. Watch Kira’s question and the President’s response here:
Let’s break down Kira’s question and the President’s answers:
- Drone Strikes: Kira mentioned “leaked guidelines regarding done strikes on American citizens,” referring to this Department of Justice white paper. This is an obvious accountability issue for the Obama Administration: carrying out attacks on citizens and eschewing the trial-by-jury system, arguably in violation of the Constitution. Obama skirted this part of Kira’s question entirely, although he did refer to “national security” and “counterterrorism” as areas where there were “legitimate questions” about his transparency.
- Benghazi: Obama immediately took issue with Kira’s claim that he had been less than transparent in the aftermath of the killing of four Americans in Libya, including Ambassador Christopher Stephens. He claimed that the White House provided unprecedented amounts of “testimony and paper” to Congress, and indirectly accused Republicans of overplaying the Benghazi scandal. What Obama didn’t address was his administration’s immediate response to the attack–a series of veiled, couched, contradictory statements. Overall, Benghazi was not a great moment in government transparency even if Congress has demanded thousands of documents from the administration.
- Closed-Door Budget Meetings: Obama responded by saying that “just about every law we pass or rule we implement is put online,” a step forward but a far cry from the openness he had promised in 2008. Several key pieces of legislation–including the stimulus and the healthcare overhaul–were devised behind closed doors, after Obama promised that all negotiations would be on C-SPAN. Both bills were placed online after they were signed into law, but members of Congress didn’t have time to read them before they voted on them, much less citizens.
Overall, the President was able to present some ways in which his White House has opened up–the placing of laws on the internet, and making the White House visitor log a public record–but conceded that there was room for criticism about his lack of transparency particularly on foreign affairs and security matters.
The Obama Administration deserves a morsel of recognition for its verbal commitment to transparency, and the rudimentary steps it has taken toward achieving that goal, but it hasn’t fully delivered on its pledge. Obama’s Open Government Initiative, a transparency agenda implemented in late 2009, fulfilled a campaign promise, but received “decidedly mixed” reviews from the Sunlight Foundation. The pro-transparency nonprofit noted that many federal agencies have failed to live up to, or ignored entirely, the Initiative’s standards, and that Obama has done little to enforce his own directive.
Obama has four years left to bring true transparency to Washington–beginning with the upcoming budget negotiations. Later in the Google hangout, he also promised increased transparency on drone use. This is a goal that even Obama’s opponents can support: accountability and openness in government is always welcome, no matter which party is in power.
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