This is not the change we hoped for. President Obama rose to power on the basis of his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it. But after a year in the White House he has made both of George Bush's wars his wars.
Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, candidate Barack Obama said, "I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home." The following month, under fire from Hillary Clinton, he reiterated, "I was opposed to this war in 2002....I have been against it in 2002, 2003, 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8 and I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don't be confused."
Indeed, in his famous "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow" speech on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he also proclaimed, "I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that . . . this was the moment when we ended a war."
Now he has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to keep the war in Iraq going for another 19 months, after which we will have 50,000 American troops in Iraq for as far as the eye can see. If McCain had proposed this sort of minor tweaking of the Bush policy, I think we’d see antiwar rallies in 300 cities. Calling the antiwar movement!
President Obama’s promises are becoming less credible. He says that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future ("in July of 2011," but "taking into account conditions on the ground"). Voters are going to be skeptical of both these promises to accelerate now and then put on the brakes later.
The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ -- a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars -- and should also remember the years of stagflation and slow growth that followed President Johnson's expansion of the welfare state.
National Journal headline: "Obama Signs Spending Bill, Promises Future Restraint."
Now where have I heard that before?
The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn reports that back in March, IMS Health projected slightly negative revenue growth for the pharmaceutical industry but recently changed that projection to 3.5-percent annual growth from 2008 through 2013.
"What changed?" Cohn asks. "A major factor, according to IMS, was the emerging details of health care reform . . . Put it all together, and you have more demand for name-brand drugs . . . enough to boost revenue significantly." And:
"If this bill is implemented," the report concludes on page 138, "an increase in prices on new drugs can be expected."
How could this be happening? Oh yeah:
That brings us back to the deal that the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, which represents those companies, made with the White House and Senate Finance Committee . . .
The industry agreed to embrace health care reform and, later on, launched a massive advertising campaign to promote the cause. In exchange, the White House and Senate Finance--which had been asking various industries to pledge concessions that would help pay for the cost of coverage expansions--promised not to seek more than $80 in reduced payments to drug makers.
To an industry as big and profitable as the drug makers, giving up $80 billion over ten years wouldn’t seem like much of a sacrifice--a point critics started making right away. But if IMS is right, the drug industry wouldn't even be giving up $80 billion, in any meaningful sense of the term. If anything, it'd be making more money. Maybe quite a lot of it.
Which is what I predicted, both here and here.
Cohn concludes, "the drug industry has enormous leverage in Congress." But Cohn still supports the president's health care takeover. Or is it PhRMA's health care takeover?
"[O]nce it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told New York Times reporter Katherine Seelye for her June 22 story on President Obama's "Sunlight Before Signing" campaign pledge. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”
The story, titled "White House Changes the Terms of a Campaign Pledge About Posting Bills Online," was about the White House effort to walk back from President Obama's campaign pledge to post bills he receives for five days before signing them.
When the New York Times published the story, five bills had been presented to the president and were awaiting his signature. Four more were presented to him after the story's publication. All nine are now law.
And for the life of me, I can't find where any of them have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. Surely it was clear to the White House that the five bills it had and the four soon to come would reach the president's desk.
I disagree with arguments for releasing President Obama from his pledge to sign bills only after he has posted them for a full five days after receiving them. It would have the same effects as the 72-hour hold the Sunlight Foundation is seeking from Congress — also a welcome legislative process reform.
And it's becoming more clear that the five-day promise could be implemented. At this point, only one of 39 bills that the president has signed has been posted for five days in advance. (The DTV Delay Act was actually not held five days after formal presentment, but the White House posted it after the final version had passed Congress.) Twenty-four other bills have been held at the White House five days or more before the President has signed them. They just haven't been posted.
To repeat, over 60% of the legislation coming out of Congress waits five days for the president's signature as a matter of course. The only thing preventing implementation of the president's promise as to these bills is the White House's inexplicable reluctance to do what it says it will do.
At this point, it's worth repeating that I can't find the bills online at Whitehouse.gov. I have searched the site high and low, even entering URLs where I would guess they might be. I find it hard to believe that no bills have been posted under even the modified promise given to the Times late last month. I will happily post a correction and apology if there is a corner of Whitehouse.gov that I failed to explore. (If bills are so deeply hidden, that's a problem, too, of course.)
I'm fond of joking that the "Sunlight Before Signing" promise is a golden opportunity because I can write 100 blog posts over the next few years without thinking a single original thought. But voters and me are one thing — if the White House is breaking a promise to the New York Times, that could be serious!
For the record, here are the pieces of legislation signed by the president so far:
It's fair to say that civil liberties and limited government were not high on President George W. Bush's priorities list. Indeed, they probably weren't even on the list. Candidate Barack Obama promised "change" when he took office, and change we have gotten. The name of the president is different.
Alas, the policies are much the same. While it is true that President Obama has not made the same claims of unreviewable monarchical power for the chief executive--an important distinction--he has continued to sacrifice civil liberties for dubious security gains.
Reports the New York Times:
Civil libertarians recently accused President Obama of acting like former President George W. Bush, citing reports about Mr. Obama’s plans to detain terrorism suspects without trials on domestic soil after he closes the Guantánamo prison.
It was only the latest instance in which critics have argued that Mr. Obama has failed to live up to his campaign pledge “to restore our Constitution and the rule of law” and raised a pointed question: Has he, on issues related to fighting terrorism, turned out to be little different from his predecessor?
The answer depends on what it means to act like Mr. Bush.
As they move toward completing a review of their options for dealing with the detainees, Obama administration officials insist that there is a fundamental difference between Mr. Bush’s approach and theirs. While Mr. Bush claimed to wield sweeping powers as commander in chief that allowed him to bypass legal constraints when fighting terrorism, they say, Mr. Obama respects checks and balances by relying on — and obeying — Congressional statutes.
“While the administration is considering a series of options, a range of options, none relies on legal theories that we have the inherent authority to detain people,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said this week in response to questions about the preventive detention report. “And this will not be pursued in that manner.”
But Mr. Obama’s critics say that whether statutory authorization exists for his counterterrorism policies is just a legalistic point. The core problem with Mr. Bush’s approach, they argue, was that it trammeled individual rights. And they say Mr. Obama’s policies have not changed that.
“President Obama may mouth very different rhetoric,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He may have a more complicated process with members of Congress. But in the end, there is no substantive break from the policies of the Bush administration.”
The primary beneficiaries of constitutional liberties are not terrorist suspects, but the rest of us. The necessary trade-offs are not always easy, but the president and legislators must never forget that it is a free society they are supposed to be defending.
The New York Times has an interesting story on President Obama's continuing failure to follow through on his "Sunlight Before Signing" promise. On the campaign trail, he said he would post bills online for five days before signing them. Two dozen bills now have his signature, and only one has been posted for five days before signing.
The article (and accompanying video) fixes on a couple of reasons why the president might be excused from carrying out the promise. One is the technical difficulty of managing potentially hundreds of thousands of comments. The promise did not include a promise to publish comments, though -- much less to read them (though it would be politically astute to appear to do so). In my view, the difficulty of administering a public comment system -- which was not part of the promise -- does not excuse the failure to post the bills Congress presents to the president for five days before he signs them.
A second excuse is that posting bills online would be ineffectual. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation is quoted saying, "There isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t know that commenting after a bill has been passed is meaningless."
I have done my level-best to illustrate how a five-day hold at the White House would have good effects on reducing earmarks, parochial amendments, and other shenanigans -- such as congressional approval of bonuses to AIG executives.
Miller's preferred approach -- placing a similar hold on bills before they leave Congress -- would have a similar effect -- but nothing dramatically more open. Just as under a presidential hold, members of Congress and Senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments. Just as under a presidential hold, they would carefully avoid a blossoming of debate about their pet projects at the end of the legislative process. A congressional hold would change the upstream behavior of the politicians -- just like a presidential hold would.
A presidential hold and a congressional hold are both good ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive. The presidential hold has a key advantage: The president has already promised it -- to the cheers of American voters.
The New York Times story reports a small step toward meeting the actual terms of President Obama's pledge:
"In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law."
If this means posting links to bills on the Thomas legislative system from Whitehouse.gov, this is something the White House has done sporadically, and it would increase transparency by a small margin if it were regularized. The administration should establish a uniform URL where bills are posted so that every American can easily find every bill the president signs. But, in terms of fulfilling President Obama's promise, "posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it."
I think this is grudging progress toward implementation of President Obama's "Sunlight Before Signing" promise. In the video, the author of the Times article has the best line illustrating why the White House deserves modest congratulations for taking this step: "It’s a lot easier to promise to change Washington than it is to actually change it.”
Last week was an interesting week for transparency, with some good news and some bad news.
On the "good" side of the ledger, the administration rolled out "Data.gov," a growing set of data feeds provided by U.S. government agencies. These will permit the public to do direct oversight of the kind I discussed at our "Just Give Us the Data!" policy forum back in December.
My metric of whether Data.gov is a success will be when independent users and Web sites use government data to produce new and interesting information and applications. The Sunlight Foundation has a contest underway to promote just that. Get ready for really interesting, cool, direct public oversight of the government.
Also under the White House's new "Open Government Initiative," an Open Government Dialogue "brainstorming session" began last week. The public can submit ideas for making the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This is important stuff, an outgrowth of President Obama's open government directive, issued on his first full day in office.
That directive called for the Office of Management and Budget to require specific actions of agencies "within 120 days," which meant the final product was due last week. And that missed deadline is where we start to slide into the "bad" on the transparency ledger.
Last week, President Obama gave an important speech on national security (which I blogged about here and here). But you couldn't find the speech in the "Speeches" section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. It's buried elsewhere. That's "basic Web site malpractice," I told NextGov.com. And I cautioned my friends in the transparency community not to forget Government 1.0 for all the whiz-bang Gov 2.0 projects flashing before our eyes. Whitehouse.gov should be a useful, informative resource for average Americans.
The current top proposal on the "brainstorming" site referred to above is to require a 72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills. This is reminiscent of President Obama's promise to hold bills five days before signing them. But, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times, the president signed several more bills last week without holding them the requisite time.
The White House protests that they posted links to bills on the Thomas Web site at the Whitehouse.gov blog. But that does not give the public meaningful review of the bills in their final form, as they have come to the president from Congress. "Posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it," says John Wonderlich at Sunlight.
President Obama signed nine new laws since we last reviewed his record on the "Sunlight Before Signing" promise. Alas, it's been a case study in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.
Five of the bills were held by the White House more than five days before the president signed them, but they weren't posted! Simply posting them on Whitehouse.gov in final form would have satisfied "Sunlight Before Signing."
President Obama's average drops to .043, and that's crediting him one win for the DTV Delay Act, which was posted at Whitehouse.gov in its final form for five days after Congress passed it, but before presentment, which is the logical time to start the five-day clock.
Here is the latest tally of bills passed by Congress, including the date presented, date signed, whether they've been posted or linked to at Whitehouse.gov, and whether they've been posted for the full five days after presentment. (Corrections welcome - there is no uniform way that the White House is posting bills or links, so I may have missed something.)