Transparency

Well, at Least the State of the Union Address Was Televised on C-SPAN

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Yesterday I noted that President Obama, in an interview with ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, had acknowledged his failure to deliver on his oft-repeated promise to televise health care negotiations on C-SPAN. "It's my responsibility," he said, "and I'll be speaking to this at the State of the Union, to own up to the fact that the process didn't run the way I ideally would like it to and that we have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more." So how did he address the transparency issue in last night's speech? There was this, referring to the health care debate:

This is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse trading, the process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?"

Obama did not acknowledge that the public's suspicion may have been magnified by his failure to do what he promised to do: make the process fully transparent, so that everyone knew what was going on before Congress voted on the final legislation. Instead, as usual, there was a sense that our elected representatives were deciding our fates behind closed doors, the better to facilitate all that "lobbying and horse trading." The C-SPAN coverage that did not happen (that was in fact blocked by the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, with nary a protest from the president) was symbolic of this failure. Last night Obama was even less forthright in accepting responsibility for the lack of transparency than he was in the interview with Sawyer, saying only that he should have explained things more clearly, as if the problem could have been solved with a really good Powerpoint presentation.

Later in the speech he bemoaned "a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years." He blamed this deficit mainly on "the outsized influence of lobbyists" and condemned the Supreme Court for making them more powerful by overturning restrictions on political speech by corporations. He urged Congress to "pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems"—a pointless exercise if by that he meant reinstating the sort of speech restrictions that the Court said cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment. In addition to lobbyists, Obama blamed CEOs who earn higher salaries than he thinks they should, reckless bankers, TV pundits who "reduce serious debates to silly arguments," and politicians who "tear each other down instead of lifting this country up."

Hmmm. Is anyone missing from this list? How about a president who during his first year in office broke a series of conspicuous promises, including not just the one about televising health care negotiations but also the one about changing the way business is done in Washington by reducing the influence of lobbyists, the one about "fiscal responsibility," the one about not raising taxes on households earning less than $250,000 a year, the one about taking a more modest view of executive power and the "state secrets" privilege, the one about closing Guantanamo by this month, the one about ending raids on medical marijuana providers, the one about allowing five days of public review before signing bills, the one about cutting earmarks to 1994 levels, and even the one about recognizing the Armenian genocide. PolitiFact.com counts 15 broken promises so far, and its standards are conservative. In addition to the clearly broken promises, there are the positions (not quite promises) from which Obama has retreated, such as his opposition to an individual health insurance mandate and the Defense of Marriage Act.

I hope that Obama will not think I am simply trying to tear him down (instead of lifting this country up), or that I am reducing serious debates to silly arguments, when I suggest that a president who breaks so many big and small promises, who generally does not own up to doing so, who persistently misportrays the arguments of his opponents, and who misrepresents his own policies may bear at least a little of the blame for the "deficit of trust."

More on Obama's broken promises here.