Saturday, June 23, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact: President Obama's transparency record: lots of data, not as much sunlight

On his first day in office, President Barack Obama pledged to hold himself to "a new standard of openness."

Nearly four years later, he has made significant progress. He released White House visitor logs, created an "ethics hub" for lobbying and ethics reports and posted a database about how the economic stimulus was spent.

But in other areas, he has succumbed to the gravitational pull of Washington to conduct business behind closed doors. He broke a promise to televise meetings about health care on C-SPAN, he failed to keep his pledge to wait five days before signing legislation and he hasn't created a "contracts and influence" database to disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying.

PolitiFact is tracking more than 500 promises Obama made during the 2008 campaign, including 35 on transparency.

We selected 14 core promises for this analysis, rating four Promise Kept, five Compromise and five Promise Broken.

"He ran on changing Washington," said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group. "In the end, you have to wonder if he succeeded in changing Washington, or Washington changed him."

Obama says he has made great strides in letting people know what their government is doing.

"We've worked to make government more open and responsive than ever before," he said in a speech last fall. "We've been promoting greater disclosure of government information, empowering citizens with new ways to participate in their democracy. We are releasing more data in usable forms on health and safety and the environment, because information is power, and helping people make informed decisions and entrepreneurs turn data into new products, they create new jobs."

Shakespeare money

Obama's biggest success in transparency can be measured in bytes.

He's posted hundreds of databases that had never been easy to access, released detailed records about the economic stimulus and pulled together ethics reports that make it easier for people to look up information about lobbyists, federal candidates and even White House meetings.

"The Obama administration has done a better job of making statistics, figures, and data of government spending available," said Mark Rumold, an open-government legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group that specializes in the Freedom of Information Act.

The Recovery.gov database provides details on thousands of projects that got federal money from the stimulus. For example, it shows that $37,000 went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and $44,510 paid for student interns at the National Key Deer Refuge in the lower Florida Keys.

Another site on federal investments abroad, ForeignAssistance.gov, shows the government spent nearly $41 million on malaria treatment in Tanzania.

Obama's willingness to publish so much data is remarkable because it has provided ammunition for his critics, who have cited selective projects to portray the stimulus as ineffective and wasteful.

Obama has also been the first president to post White House visitor logs. Although there are some exceptions, such as personal visits and meetings about Supreme Court nominations, they reveal everything from lobbyists who attend meetings in the West Wing to people who are invited to the White House bowling alley.

On PolitiFact's Obameter, he's earned a Promise Kept for centralizing ethics and lobbying information for voters, releasing presidential records and creating a national declassification center.

Behind closed doors

One of Obama's most celebrated transparency promises was to open his meetings about health care reform.

"I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table," he vowed at a 2008 campaign event. "We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies — they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN."

But it was business as usual and earned Obama a Promise Broken.

He also vowed openness in rulemaking and a more effective response on Freedom of Information Act requests. But transparency advocates say he fell short on both.

He said he would get agency heads to make the federal rulemaking process open to the public, which earned a Compromise on our Obameter because new policies are in place, but the process remains opaque.

Likewise, pro-transparency groups have criticized the administration's refusal to release some records through the Freedom of Information Act — particularly on national security issues.

For whistleblowers in the federal government, Obama said he would strengthen their legal protections and get them access to jury trials, so they would feel comfortable calling out cases of waste, fraud and abuse in government. So far, his efforts haven't resulted in a new law, another Compromise on our Obameter.

Expectation vs. reality

When Obama made transparency pronouncements on his first day in office, it sent a message to open-government groups.

"I don't think he picked day one just willy-nilly. I think he did care about this and was a true believer," said Nate Jones, Freedom of Information Act coordinator for the National Security Archive, a group that compiles security documents.

Did Obama deliver on his transparency promises? PolitiFact asked one of the five pro-transparency groups that gave him an Open Government award last year.

"There is always a risk in giving an award, especially when it is aspirational," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. "At the time, he deserved it for his commitment. Whether he'll fulfill that commitment and be worthy of another award is questionable. I think a lot is going to depend on whether we see a second administration."

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