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'The Most Transparent Administration in History'

A campaign promise becomes a punchline.

On his first day in office, President Barack Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration in history." As he prepares to move out of the White House, the phrase will probably be remembered as a sarcastic punchline.

It was hard not to snicker when one of the beleaguered White House press secretaries would stand in front of the journalist corps and claim that the executive branch was blazing new trails in openness. Despite some promising open data initiatives, the executive branch under Obama was, on the whole, more secretive than ever. Since 2009, press access to the White House has been notably restricted, whistleblower prosecutions have spiked, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against the federal government have reached an all-time high.

In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a scathing report, written by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., on the Obama administration's obsession with controlling media coverage and burnishing its image, drawing comparisons to the pathological tendencies of one of the White House's previous occupants.

"The Obama administration's aggressive war on leaks, and its determined efforts to control information that the news media needs to hold the government accountable for its actions, are without equal since the Nixon administration and in direct conflict with President Obama's often-stated goal of making his administration the most transparent in American history," Downie said when the document was released. "Parenthetically, I'm old enough that I was one of the editors on the Watergate story, so I make that comparison with knowledge," he continued.

But unlike Tricky Dick, who provided future presidents with a cautionary tale about how dirty tricks can come back to bite them, Obama leaves a blueprint on how to suppress information and get away with it.

The most immediate change was a sudden clampdown on unauthorized comments and interviews. The Obama administration made sure the word got out: The only people who talk to journalists are public affairs officers. In 2014, 38 national press organizations and transparency groups—including Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Poynter Institute—called on him to end "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies."

"Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees," the letter read. "We consider these restrictions a form of censorship—an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear."

This overwhelming urge to manage its image sometimes manifested in bizarre ways, like the time in 2011 when one of the vice president's staffers forced a reporter to sit in a closet during a fundraiser.

Long-running fights between the press and the government underscored the deep, pernicious reach of the secrecy state. Media organizations and civil rights groups were forced to file time-consuming, expensive lawsuits to pry loose information on the Obama administration's expanded use of targeted drone strikes and the legal justification for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Although part of Obama's day-one transparency pledge directed federal agencies to adopt a "presumption of openness" when dealing with public records requests and never to withhold information solely because it would be embarrassing, the directive was rarely enforced.

Instead, agencies delayed, stonewalled, and redacted as much as they could get away with (and often more than they were supposed to be able to get away with), forcing accountability groups and media to sue them if they wanted public information.

When a bipartisan cohort of federal lawmakers attempted to codify the directive, along with significant improvements to the Freedom of Information Act, Justice Department pressure effectively killed it. The Obama administration's work to torpedo the effort remained secret, until it was revealed a year later—through a FOIA lawsuit, naturally.

The bill was reintroduced in 2016, passed by Congress, and sent to President Obama, who of course was happy to sign it. He was, after all, running the most transparent administration in history.

Photo Credit: PPE/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It was hard not to snicker when one of the beleaguered White House press secretaries would stand in front of the journalist corps and claim that the executive branch was blazing new trails in openness.

    Well, being so blatantly dishonest is a type of transparency. And it's okay to write snigger.

  • Trshmnstr, Grump Apprentice||

    snigger erson of color

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Stop niggling.

  • Akira||

    I haven't seen such carelessly offensive vocabulary in a coon's age!

  • timbo||

    Fists, I think you are onto something there.
    This guy took Clinton lying to a whole new level.
    His blatant transparency was the gall and derision he reveled in while telling the exact opposite of the truth when he talked.

    I think he knew he was bullet proof and thus loved pushing the envelope on every single subject every day.

    Here is a guy who on two points alone over 8 years was such a transparent fraud and pissed on his minions on a daily basis:
    1. He was a total puppet to the FED, mega banks, and other massive cronies to include the military industrial complex. He did not do one thing to reign them in and he was elected on the basis of class warfare. Fantastic fraud and in your face total support of their excesses because he knew that's how you get rich as a pos politician.
    2. War - he never even tried to stop the wars. He learned well that wars are a fantastic distraction for the herd.
    The vestiges of failed politics/governments are class warfare and nationalism. His nationalists were simply Marxists dipshits, eviro-whackos, and the entire African American community. Sad but indisputable.

  • BYODB||

    I gotta admit that word choice made me wonder if it was intentional.

  • Mike Schmidt||

    I snigger at niggardly people.

  • Anomalous||

    Outdoors, it's a field snigger; indoors, it's a house snigger.

  • ||

    And you people wonder why Postrel hates us.

  • Paulpemb||

    What do you mean 'you people'....

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    He means you people, the sniggering masses.

  • Cynical Asshole||

  • Rat don't serf||

    I just assume everyone hates us.

  • ||

    4th best President ever.

    So he claimed.

    TWO years in! What a pompous ass.

  • Mike Schmidt||

    Well, he did win a Nobel...

  • ||

    /flicks elastic at the third baseman.

  • ||

    Have respect- he had the best mustache this side of Stossel.

    http://cdn.phillymag.com/wp-co.....chmidt.jpg

  • Mike Schmidt||

    I am a damn fine looking man

  • Citizen X||

    Respect? No. This is Hit'n'Run.

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Rollie Fingers would like a word...

  • dantheserene||

    And that word is "Awe-inspiring".

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Having gone to look at a list of Nobel Peace Prize winners recently, I confess I am baffled at the Prize's reputation for rewarding excellence. There are exceptions (Norman Borlaugh springs to mind) but the typical winner seems to be an international bureaucrat, or a scumbag like Arafat.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    God, when you bring up Borlaug it truly invalidates so many people on the list since they just can't compare. Borlaug can be credited with saving the lives of over a billion people; Obama made us feel good about ourselves I guess?

  • Derp-o-Matic 5000||

    Obama still holds the record among Peace Prize recipients for most assassinations by predator drone.

  • ||

    Yet the press loved him, in the way a battered wife loves her husband. "But when he's not angry, he's soooo sweet and treats me sooooo well."

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    They will tolerate anything of someone who is "on their side;" and naturally you dare not criticize anyone who is a minority and a progressive, lest you be deemed a racist deplorable.

    Reichsminister Goebbels would be impressed.

  • Citizen X||

    Sure, the Obama administration has been remarkably transparent. That is entirely due to cultural and technological trends (and outside actors such as Wikileaks), and entirely despite the administration's best efforts. Politifact score: Mostly True

  • Jerryskids||

    In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a scathing report, written by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., on the Obama administration's obsession with controlling media coverage and burnishing its image, drawing comparisons to the pathological tendencies of one of the White House's previous occupants.

    "The Obama administration's aggressive war on leaks, and its determined efforts to control information that the news media needs to hold the government accountable for its actions, are without equal since the Nixon administration and in direct conflict with President Obama's often-stated goal of making his administration the most transparent in American history," Downie said when the document was released. "Parenthetically, I'm old enough that I was one of the editors on the Watergate story, so I make that comparison with knowledge," he continued.

    Not fair. Fake news from a fake news source. Everybody knows they're sleaze over there, lying liars out to unfairly slander good people and then run and hide behind the First Amendment when they get called out on their lies. Some people might say "Free speech! Free speech!", those people are foolish. Things are gonna change, though, these stupid people at their failing newspaper nobody likes, nobody reads, nobody believes and nobody takes seriously are going to suffer the consequences. They're already suffering the consequences. Sad.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    That's uncanny.

  • timbo||

    I love how journalists get a conscience every once in a while.

    Truth is they should all be fired and some prosecuted for aiding and abetting many frauds and some crimes of the outgoing administration.

    The only solace is that journalists hatred of trump might lend to some coverage of government malfeasance this time around.

  • Paulpemb||

    "But unlike Tricky Dick, who provided future presidents with a cautionary tale about how dirty tricks can come back to bite them, Obama leaves a blueprint on how to suppress information and get away with it."

    It's not hard, when most of the mainstream press are your willing accomplices.

  • dantheserene||

    Fortunately, the blueprint only works if you have a (D) after your name, so we're mostly safe for a while.

  • Swiss Servator||

    You cannot rape the consenting.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Obama leaves a blueprint on how to suppress information and get away with it.

    The most important step being to make sure you have a D after your name. I'm pretty sure there's no way the media lets a President with an R after their name get away with half the shit they let Obama get away with.

  • timbo||

    At least we might see the media do a portion of their job though.

    Although I trust we will not see people reporting the news. We will see a form of WWE on a daily basis with a taste of reporting on government excess or wrongdoing. We never got one critique of Brak for 8 years.

    The media is not just biased towards all things Dem. They are mostly brainwashed Marxists.

    Obama was a Marxists like Clintons were. They knew there is vast wealth to be had by exploiting the scam. The media pinup morons really think utopia is possible because they live it.

  • Mr Drew||

    Are there morning lynx somewhere and I'm just not seeing them?

  • Len Bias||

    "As he prepares to move out of the White House, the phrase will probably be remembered as a sarcastic punchline."

    You don't live in California.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    As of this Friday, it will once again be officially acceptable to be skeptical of the federal government.

    --announcement from CNN

  • Number 2||

    Stop complaining. The Obama presidency was indeed the most transparent in history.

    In my dictionary, the word "transparent" has eight definitions. Definition number 4 is: "easily seen through, recognized, or detected," as in "transparent excuses." I wholeheartedly agree that the Obama presidency was "easily seen through" on countless issues. As such, under this definition, Obama was clearly the most "transparent" president in my lifetime.

    It's not his fault you assumed he meant something else.

  • BYODB||

    It really depends on what the definition of 'is' is.

  • mpercy||

    Also made a promise to post pending legislation on WH site for 5 days before signing as part of that transparency effort.

    Lilly Ledbetter Act passed the House of Representatives on January 27, 2009, seven days after Himself was sworn in. He signed it on January 29, 2009.

    It was the first bill he signed into law, so he broke that promise with his first action.

  • josh||

    '"Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees," the letter read. "We consider these restrictions a form of censorship—an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear."'

    i think this is actually unfair. there's a lot to criticize about how obama managed the media during his eight years, but actually having an operation where the media or top people coordinate information isn't censorship. now, obviously you should tell the truth and have regular briefings, etc., but that's not the same thing. especially when the media does such a lousy job of be truthful itself.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    This was a great read.

  • MaleMatters||

    "On his first day in office, President Barack Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration in history.""

    That's also what Bill Clinton and Al Gore said on their first day.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Well, at least Obama's lies were pretty transparent.

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