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When President Barack Obama addresses a national gathering of newspaper editors and publishers today, he will confront his promise of government transparency before an audience skeptical of his record.
The president and his administration have “completely fallen short of their own mandate, of their own goals of being the most transparent administration in history,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “They have made some very broad pronouncements on transparency that they just haven’t backed up.”
Running for president four years ago, Obama used the annual Associated Press luncheon, which coincides this year with conventions by the ASNE and the Newspaper Association of America, to pledge to “open things up” in the federal government. “I want transparency,” he said. “I want accountability.”
Today, Obama plans to use his speech to sharpen his differences with Republicans and criticize the budget that passed the House last week without any Democratic votes. He will call it a “Trojan horse” that is a “prescription for decline” for its cuts in education, research and other federal programs, according to excerpts released by the White House.
He doesn’t plan to focus his remarks on his administration’s record on open government, instead talking about how to address the 8.3 percent unemployment rate and other domestic issues, according to administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity in advance of the speech, scheduled for 12:30 p.m. today in Washington.
Newspaper groups and free-speech advocates point to instances where the administration has supported open government and where it hasn’t. Obama has made available Secret Service visitors logs to the White House and issued an international open government directive. Officials also challenge many Freedom of Information Act requests for documents, and the Justice Department continues to prosecute whistle-blowers.
“Those that submit FOIA requests have sometimes concluded that Obama was worse than Bush,” said John Wonderlich, the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that pushes to open government records.
On the first day of Obama’s presidency, the White House website vowed the administration would be “the most open and transparent in history.” Last week, the website congratulated itself for releasing its 2.2 millionth record from the visitors log.
Last year, Obama received an award commending him for transparency from a collection of open government groups, including OMB Watch and the Project on Government Oversight. The presentation of that award was closed to the press.
“Over the past three years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “Our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people.”
The government responded to more than 576,000 FOIA requests in 2011, which marked a 5 percent increase from the year before, according to an analysis by the AP. The government released records in roughly 65 percent of the requests it considered, rejecting more than one-third, according to the analysis.
While open-government advocates praise some aspects of Obama’s record, they find fault with others, including Obama’s decision in February to embrace the use of outside political action committees to back his re-election.
Obama had repeatedly expressed opposition to such super- PACs. He called them in an Aug. 21 radio address “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names.”
The committees, made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, can raise unlimited donations from individuals, companies and unions. Committees organized as 501(c)4 groups under the Internal Revenue Service Code aren’t required to disclose their donors.
“As soon as it becomes necessary for him, or he decided it was necessary, to take these donations for Priorities USA and Priorities Action, he went silent on the question,” said Wonderlich.
White House press secretary Jay Carney has said that administration officials are free to attend fundraisers on their own time and that the White House hasn’t developed a policy on how to publicly release their activities. He didn’t confirm a trip by senior adviser David Plouffe to New York and Boston last month, where Plouffe warned Democratic donors about the threat from Republican groups.
“Cabinet secretaries are incredibly powerful under the law and, if they are soliciting donations for super-PACs, you have to wonder,” said Wonderlich. “At a minimum, we should find out if Cabinet members are attending fundraisers, especially if it’s for seven-digit checks.”
While the ASNE’s Goldberg finds fault with some of Obama’s transparency initiatives, he appreciates that he has the opportunity to work with them and that they engage in a dialogue.
“The administration doesn’t get an ‘F’ for its open government activities,” he said. “It hasn’t lived up to everyone’s satisfaction, but it’s an ongoing work in progress.”
“On the downside, they continue to point to access to Secret Service visitors logs as a victory, when it’s been anything but,” he said. The logs are incomplete and riddled with errors, he said. “It’s more of a promotional piece than anything.”
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