Obama and the Transparency Trap
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.
"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.
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