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Obama and the Transparency Trap

Barack Obama and Joe Biden

Has President-elect Barack Obama been transparent enough?

One of the most common -- and popular -- mantras during the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama was the call for more transparency in government -- an obvious rejection of the secrecy that often shrouded the administration of President George W. Bush.

And yet, that call for transparency often ran directly into a careful husbanding of information by Obama's inner circle that was, well, Bush-like in its intensity.

Mark Leibovich, a Fix friend and reporter for the New York Times, addressed this seeming paradox in a must-read profile of incoming White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Writes Leibovich:

"Obama insiders tend to shudder at any parallels to George W. Bush, but many reporters and rivals have noted the 'Bush-like' tendencies the Obama campaign demonstrated in its ability to control information. The comparison is generally meant as a compliment (albeit a grudging one) by members of the press and expressed enviously by veterans of other campaigns. [Obama campaign manager David] Plouffe himself admitted to me that the Obama campaign subscribed to the 'Bush model' of communications discipline. Asked if Obama himself spoke of the 'Bush model,' Plouffe told me he did."

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. (Thanks to the Washington Times' Christine Bellantoni for keeping the numbers.)

But, according to his critics, Obama has also been less than transparent in at least two instances already during the transition to the presidency.

The first came during his fifth press conference when Peter Baker of the New York Times asked Obama to explain the evolution of his thoughts about Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy experience from the primary season to now. Obama dismissed the question as an example of the media having "fun" but was blasted for the dodge by CNN's Campbell Brown among others.

Then, on Tuesday, Obama cut short a question by the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick about the ongoing scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the involvement, if any, of allies to the former Illinois senator. (Matt Drudge spent most of Wednesday linking to this YouTube clip of the exchange.)

Republicans, not surprisingly, pounced. "Considering Barack Obama's promises of transparency and new politics, so far his less-than-forthcoming handling of the scandal in Illinois is disappointing," said Republican National Comnittee spokesman Alex Conant. "Obama has failed to answer many basic questions about the Blagojevich scandal. This a case where the American people will find out if Obama's campaign rhetoric is met with action or if it's just words."

Is there a disconnect between Obama's rhetoric on transparency and the real-life examples we have to date?

That depends on where you stand.

Anita Dunn, a former senior adviser to Obama's campaign, argued to Leibovich that the media fundamentally misunderstand what transparency means.

"Sometimes the press corps thinks transparency and openness should be defined as carrying out all of our internal deliberations on the Web so they could watch," Dunn told Leibo. "But in fact, transparency and openness is about the process of how government is run. It's not necessarily about who might be mad at whom on a different day."

But, with a pledge to be the most open and transparent government in the history of American politics, Obama has set a higher bar for himself -- and for the media.

Combine that with the fact that the press remains scalded by the criticism that they did not question President George W. Bush closely enough and you can expect a day in, day out battle between the media and Obama's aides over how much (or little) they are revealing and why.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 18, 2008; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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People's opinions of the President, present or future, or formed by the media in most cases. Bush has been portrayed in a violently negative way, hence the lower opinion of his trustworthyness. Obama has essentially gotten a free ride from the press and, despite his team appearing to have the same level of transparency as Bush, is still seen as more trustworthy. Perception is reality for a lot of people, and those perceptions are formed by what they read and hear in the media....

Posted by: boosterprez | December 20, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Wolfgang writes: Wednesday, December, 17, 2008 7:08 PM
I am regularly amazed by the arrogance of so many members of the press.

When the President or President-Elect calls a press conference to present economic plans or for any specific announced purpose, it is arrogant to assume the right to change the purpose of the meeting to by asking questions irrelevant to the announced purpose of the meeting.
Don't try to disrupt his press conferences.
I still hold Wolf Blitzer in contempt for the time he followed President Clinton to Europe where he had gone to persuade the Europeans to support his Bosnian policy. There he disrupted President Clinton's policy press conference with questions about Lewinsky. No concern for the people dying in Bosnia.

I think this case is particularly stupid as the President Elect has clearly stated he will not respond until he gets clearance from the District Attorney. The District Attorney's office has confirmed the request for delay. The question was a patent attempt to disrupt the President Elect and put him off his stride. The questioner got the treatment he deserved.
The presidency demands respect.

Posted by: Selbourne | December 19, 2008 10:28 PM | Report abuse

I wish the press would really report something newsworthy. Even if Obama were wrapped in cellophane standing at the podium they'd still say he wasn't transparent enough. All they really want is a scoop and a few words to take out of context. The truth will win out. It always does.

Posted by: sisterbetty | December 19, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

"In essence we have the dimmest bulbs filtering our news down to the most moronic level."

and you king of nothing are the dimmest and moronic of all.

Posted by: rharring | December 18, 2008 6:21 PM | Report abuse

simple simon, don't you know that journalist majors are the half wits who can't compete with the english majors. couldn't pass math class if their life depended on it. In essence we have the dimmest bulbs filtering our news down to the most moronic level.

Posted by: king_of_zouk | December 18, 2008 5:38 PM | Report abuse

thewolf1 writes
"I'd like to see more coverage of Obama's nominees and his proposed policies in their respective areas"

I think, to a large degree, its about the journalists. The journalists ask 'scoop' questions at press conferences, fully knowing the answers. For some reason, they don't, or very few of them, ask about policy or really any subject that involves an in-depth understanding of the issues. I don't know if the problem is the journalists, per se, or the audiences that don't demand better reporting from the MSM, which really are little more than a bunch of stenographers trying to beat to competition to 'reporting' the same quotes from the same anonymous sources, speculating on the same inane, manufactured 'issues'.

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 18, 2008 5:25 PM | Report abuse

It's perfectly fine to run a tight-lipped campaign and then to pledge transparency in the White House. They have to realize, however, that said campaign is actually over with. Bush and his team never learned...

Posted by: parkerfl1 | December 18, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Whether Obama is connected with Blagojevich's recent conduct will be determined by Fitzgerald; whether Obama believes that Clinton is competent to serve as Secretary of State (if not as president) is manifest in her selection. These are twice-baked potatoes and, perhaps most tellingly, they require no reporting. I'd like to see more coverage of Obama's nominees and his proposed policies in their respective areas (having voted for the man, I'd kinda like to know what he's doing). Things I probably know enough about already: The Governor of Illinois, the Clinton Soap Opera Saga, and who's up or down at NBC.

Posted by: thewolf1 | December 18, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Anita Dunn's distinction between transparency and internal deliberations. I'd also like to add a comment about the Blagojevich scandal. Journalists' impatient need for newsworthy material is only one part of this scandal. Obama probably needed to conduct a thorough internal investigation before he could release information to the public. Patrick Fitzgerald needs the Obama team to sit on time sensitive material pending his investigation. I'm all for transparency that makes sense. I'm against a call for transparency that is really an impatient desire for real time sound bites.

Posted by: smmsanders | December 18, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse

This reminds me of how Republican pundits would attack Obama's "new kind of politician" stance.

"Oh, he's giving speeches. That's not a new type of politics."
"Oh, he's trying to win the most votes. That's not a new type of politics."
"Oh, he doesn't perform rimjobs on demand. That's not a new type of politics."

Posted by: DDAWD | December 18, 2008 4:04 PM | Report abuse

i was mad a blue gum republican.i felt stolen. i like sarah better. we aint elected a president since 60 this guy couldnt have it harder if he had red hair an praying hard he will know that all the seeds sewn wilt every kindness wilts you caint change what god put in us to keep us apart.but all the twisted feelings we have in this big country he has in his obama good luck

Posted by: william106 | December 18, 2008 3:59 PM | Report abuse

king of zouk,

Hmm you left out a few.

Dems left a surplus of cash in 2000.
The GOP is leaving us a huge deficit.

Dems went after al-queda in Somalia.
After the blackhawk down incident the GOP wanted us to retreat.

Dems warned Bush in January 2001 about Al-queda.
All of 2001, Bush ignored their advice.

Yep the GOP really is a great party..NOT

Posted by: rharring | December 18, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

the diffference between Dems and Repubs:

Congress Gets A Raise More than 2 million constituents who have lost their jobs this year, and congressional demands of CEOs to work for free did not convince lawmakers to freeze their own pay. Instead, they will get a $4,700 pay increase The Hill


Palin Rejects Proposed Salary Increase Gov. Sarah Palin says she would not accept a raise recommended by the State Officers Compensation Commission. KTUU 2

Posted by: king_of_zouk | December 18, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

When you make a million false promises, you have a million little messes to clean up. anyone who is surprised the messiah is nothing but empty election promises is not capable of thought and reason. aka - a moonbat Lib.

Posted by: king_of_zouk | December 18, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I am troubled by the way "control of the message" conflicts with "transparency". It is the kind of paradox that kept the media and the public off balance during all the past administrations so new is not so new and different is not so different.

I hope the media is less easily distracted this go round than its past performance would indicate. Substance would be a good start.

Posted by: jdh3 | December 18, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Chris bless your heart you try so hard to write a decent column but your sources and quotes don’t really make people care. I read you for entertainment not facts or reality checks.

The difference between President Elect Obama and President Bush is Obama is making sure it’s his message that is getting through to the people but Bush lied and lied and continues to lie on his many interviews trying to repair his imagine.

I don't think a President or President Elect has to answer every question especially when the questioner is just trying to make news which is a lot of the case.

Posted by: rlj1 | December 18, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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