Topic: Government and Politics

Is the New Obama Administration Walking Away from Transparency Already?

The new Whitehouse.gov went live shortly after Barack Obama became president yesterday. It has much of the look and feel of his transition Web site, Change.gov.

Among the featured items on the homepage today (they will change regularly, of course) is the site itself and the new administration’s commitment to transparency. However, the actual terms of that commitment come up pretty anemic.

In a post on the White House blog, Director of New Media Macon Phillips says:

President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

Executive orders and proclamations? Information about senior leadership and the president’s priorities? That’s not breaking any new ground on transparency.

The transition’s “Seat at the Table” program required “any documents from official meetings with outside organizations [to] be posted on our website for people to review and comment on.”

The decision to port this practice over to the White House has either not been made, or has been decided against. Given that meetings are already happening, it will be a tough policy to implement if it is not implemented right away.

There is an “Office of Public Liaison” (and intergovernmental affairs) on the Whitehouse.gov site, but it’s nothing more than an email submission form at this point. “More ways for you to interact” are promised.

Words aren’t deeds, and it’s already too late to demonstrate a day-one commitment to transparency. Let’s hope the first steps of the new administration are not steps away from the important transparency precedents set by the transition.

Update: As this post was being written and edited, news stories were coming out about new executive orders dealing with ethics and transparency. Though I haven’t been able to find them yet – hint hint, Whitehouse.gov – the change to the interpretation of FOIA sounds like a welcome, though modest, step in the right direction.

Responsibilities

President Obama delivered an interesting inaugural speech yesterday. His theme was responsibility, a theme that provides a useful frame for his administration.

The individual versus the collective: Americans generally affirm individual or personal responsibility for one’s life. To be an adult – to put aside childish things - means taking responsibility for one’s actions and outcomes. Yet language permits another possibility. “We” can take responsibility for this outcome or that injustice. Putting aside childish things means taking collective responsibility through government action. In this view, emphasizing the individual suggests a childish selfishness that should be overcome. Obama seems to be about both kinds of responsibility right now. But extending state control over society vitiates personal responsibility. The new president will have to choose between the two.

The rule of law versus charisma: In a free society, individuals associate together through consent within a set of impersonal rules enforced by an impartial judiciary. Societies may also be ruled by charismatic leaders who are thought to have special powers granted by divine favor or by other means. Charismatic authority undermines both individual and collective responsibility. No one need do anything: the special man will say the magic words and everything will change for the better. Moreover, charismatic men with special powers should not be restrained by mere laws. They are above such restraints and must be so to do their work.

Consequences versus absolute ends: In an ethic of responsibility, leaders and followers look to consequences in acting politically. President Obama alluded to an ethic of responsibility yesterday. We want a government that works; programs that do not work will be ended. The thought is admirable, the reality unpromising. Ronald Reagan eliminated two federal programs, one of which was a training program that worsened the lot of its clients. Reagan was thought to have a mandate to cut back government. Obama was elected for many reasons, none of which were constraining the federal government. More than a few of his followers expect he will, as he put it yesterday, “remake the world.” Those who set out to remake the world rarely notice the immediate consequences of their crusade. After all, the benefits of bringing heaven to earth will more than overcome the costs of the crusade.

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations.  If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

Bush’s Gift to Obama: A More Powerful State

Friends of freedom, the Constitution, and limited government have plenty of reasons to deplore the past eight years. But in case you thought we might get some relief now, this Washington Post article from inauguration morning will change your mind. One of the points it makes – as some of us warned during the past few years – is that powers claimed by one president are left in the hands of the next, even though the first president’s supporters might have less confidence in his successor’s integrity and wisdom. So here’s the government that President Bush and the Republicans have turned over to President Obama and the Democrats:

Barack Obama takes office today with a realistic prospect of joining the ranks of history’s most powerful presidents….

Historians, recent White House officials and senior members of the incoming team expressed broad agreement that Obama begins his term in command of an office that is at or near its historic zenith….

The federal government itself is a far more potent instrument, in its breadth and depth of command over national life, than it has ever been before. Largely in response to the threat of terrorism, the Bush years and President Bill Clinton’s two terms saw “an incredible period of state-building that’s unrivaled in American history except by the creation of the national security state in the 1940s and ’50s,” said Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale whose blog, Balkinization, is often cited by members of the Obama team.

By necessity or design, and most often by passive acquiescence, Congress and the courts have let presidents do most of the steering of the new and expanded institutions that govern finance, commerce, communications, travel, energy production and especially intelligence gathering. When there were struggles for dominance among the three branches, most of them ended with lopsided victories for the executive.

The legislative power to declare war and ratify treaties, for example, has been deeply eroded by the practice of presidents to launch military operations on their own and to make major international commitments – such as December’s “status of forces” pact with Iraq – by “executive agreement” rather than by treaty requiring a two-thirds Senate vote. After lengthy controversy over warrantless domestic surveillance in the Bush administration, Congress authorized the program without obtaining any details about what, exactly, is collected and how it is used.

“Really, in the last 80 years we’ve seen a gradual, and at times not gradual, concentration of power in the executive office,” said William P. Marshall, who served as deputy White House counsel under Clinton….

Even in its first iteration, the government’s $700 billion expenditure to shore up U.S. financial systems will rival the roughly $1 trillion a year in “discretionary” federal spending – the portion of the budget, not including interest on loans and mandatory benefits such as Social Security, that is negotiated each year between the White House and Congress. Obama, who told The Post last week that he must “go big” in response to “the biggest emergency since World War II,” has spoken elliptically of the prospect that the cost could double.

Congress, the principal power of which is thought to be control of the national purse, has made little pretense of managing these vast expenditures. It will fall to Obama and his subordinates to decide winners and losers in the banking, financial services, automobile and other major industries, a span of control that dwarfs President Harry S. Truman’s attempt to seize control of steel production.

We don’t know yet whether President Obama will prove to be FDR or Jimmy Carter. But it’s clear that the freedom movement faces challenges that aren’t going away.

Dissident Notes on the Obama Coronation

It’s wall-to-wall Obama in the newspapers and on the airwaves, and I keep wondering, Was it quite so overwhelming in the run-up to previous inaugurations? I think not. Presumably the gushing media response is generated by some combination of Barack Obama’s being our first African-American president, his being the antidote to an epidemic of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and our growing cult of the presidency. I complained once about people who see the president as “a combination of Superman, Santa Claus, and Mother Teresa,” and this month journalists are leading the way. Even New York Times reporter Helene Cooper, writing the “pool report” for other journalists on Obama’s visit to the Washington Post, noted that “around 100 people–Post reporters perhaps?–awaited PEOTUS’s arrival, cheering and bobbing their coffee cups.” Post reporter Howard Kurtz assured readers that his fellow journalists did gawk, but they did not cheer or applaud.

The Washington Post banners Obama’s “centrist approach.” Even Blue Dog Democrat Jim Cooper says he’s showing “great centrism.” He’s promising to spend a trillion dollars more than the most spendthrift president in history. If he promised to spend two trillion dollars more, would the Post see his program as left-liberal?

For politicians everything is politics: “It has been more than three months since he sat through a Sunday church service and at least five years since he attended regularly, but during the transition, Obama has spoken to religious leaders almost daily. They said Obama calls to seek advice, but rarely is it spiritual. Instead, he asks how to mobilize faith-based communities behind his administration.”

Nation’s Hopes High for Obama,” says the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Those polled say that they have high expectations for his administration, they think he has a mandate for major new programs, and they like his promise to give virtually everyone some money. Indeed, according to a graphic in the paper but apparently not online, 79 percent of respondents have a favorable impression of Barack Obama, much higher than the numbers for Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II as they prepared to take office. In fact, the only modern president whose favorable ratings on the eve of inauguration matched Obama’s was Jimmy Carter. Hmmmmm.

Bob Woodward offers 10 lessons Obama could learn from the mistakes of the Bush administration. One of them is “Righteous motives are not enough for effective policy.” Woodward directs all his lessons at foreign and defense policy, but that’s a good rule for domestic policy too. The fact that a policy sounds right-minded – create jobs, raise the minimum wage, ban sweatshop products, mandate energy efficiency – doesn’t mean that it will work. Economic processes are dynamic, not static. Benefits have costs. Another of Woodward’s rules is “A president must do the homework to master the fundamental ideas and concepts behind his policies.” Again, that applies to economic as well as to foreign policy. Has Obama read any thoughtful criticisms of Keynesian economics or of “job creation” schemes or of renewable-energy mandates? He met with conservative pundits, but has he sat down and listened to any of the many economists who oppose his stimulus plans?

On a lighter note, former “Saturday Night Live” writer and Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay discussed Ferrell’s Broadway show, “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” with the Washington Post. Asked how he might make Obama-related comedy, McKay said it would be tough because “Obama’s an actual adult who knows how to work.” Let’s see … four years ago Obama was voting “present” in the state senate, and now he’s going to be president. His supporters range from journalists who compared him to “the New Testament” to actual voters who exult, “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know. If I help [Obama], he’s gonna help me.” He himself said that his capture of the Democratic nomination “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” If humorists can’t find some humor there, we need better humorists.

And maybe it’s appropriate that a singer known as “The Boss” headlined the inaugural concert for a candidate whose wife promised, “Barack Obama will require you to work… . Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”

Bush’s Chutzpah Institute

The president who launched our longest war, arrogated more power to the executive than ever before, increased federal spending by a trillion dollars, pushed for the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, further nationalized education, tried to nationalize marriage, and held Americans in jail without access to a lawyer or a judge has found a theme for his presidential library: freedom.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center will include a “Freedom Institute” focused on a broad portfolio of topics, including the expansion of democracy abroad and education reforms of the kind Bush implemented during his presidency, according to organizers.

Coming next: The Clinton Center for Honesty and the Paris Hilton Center for Modesty.

How to Break the Grip of Lobbyists

James Q. Wilson, reviewing Robert Kaiser’s new book So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, explains how we could – but won’t – break the power of lobbyists:

Or one could do what would make the greatest difference: reduce federal spending programs of the sort that create incentives for lobbyists to expand them. The central reason earmarks developed in the 1970s is that by then Washington was trying to solve so many problems that it appropriated money for virtually everything.

Kaiser acknowledges that this is the problem. He notes that politicians, both liberal and conservative, have produced “a more intrusive government, more important to the well-being of more Americans.” The more groups saw “their own fate at stake in Washington’s debates on public policy, the better the market for lobbyists,” he writes.

But reducing the extent of government activity is only slightly more likely than amending the Constitution. It may be better to step back and ask, “Do American voters dislike Washington because it is corrupt, or do they dislike it because it is ineffective in solving the problems (some real, some only imagined) that it has embraced?”

When the federal agenda did not include agriculture, the environment, drug abuse, gun control, academic research, mortgages, homelessness and school quality – and that was during Kaiser’s lifetime and mine – it was hard to have an earmark because there were few programs to which they could be attached. And that was also the time when the great majority of Americans thought national officials were doing a good job.

President Obama and the D.C. Schools

For the third time in 30 years, a president has to decide where to send his school-age children after moving to Washington, D.C. And having school-age children naturally gives any new president a particular interest in the D.C. public schools. A big headline in today’s Washington Post (actual paper copy) proclaims, “Obama Interested in D.C. Schools.” In an interview with the Post, President-elect Obama said he was determined to be part of the local community and that

he and his wife had specifically discussed working with the D.C. public schools, using their own celebrity and success “as leverage to get kids and parents and teachers excited about the possibilities of an education.” He said he was “trying to think about regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals” and reiterated his desire to open up the White House “in ways that haven’t been done before.”

At a policy level, he said that he had met D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee but had not spent much time with her and that he expects his incoming Education Department secretary, Arne Duncan, to be “interested in how the school experiment here goes.”

But the next sentence acknowledges that

Obama’s two daughters are attending the private Sidwell Friends School.

So he’d like to make regular visits to the D.C. public schools, but he ain’t sending his own kids there. Which is perfectly understandable. Neither did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. Or Vice President-elect Biden’s son. Indeed all their children attend or did attend Sidwell friends. The Carters sent Amy to D.C. public schools, but that was the last time a president did so. The Obamas don’t seem to have considered public schools. They’re sending Malia and Sasha to Sidwell, a school of choice for the Washington elite.

Of course, the Obamas also sent their daughters to private school in Chicago. What’s most striking to me in all of this is that Obama has named Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan to oversee the nation’s schools, even though in seven years he wasn’t able to produce a school in Chicago that Barack and Michelle Obama would send their own children to. “What he did for Chicago, he can do for America”?

Perhaps Obama and Tim Geithner believe that taxes and public schools are for the little people. And it would be nice if they’d give the little people a break on their taxes and a choice of schools.