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This week's Obama explanation of transparency

February 3, 2010 |  6:28 am

Democratic president Barack Obama at a townhall meeting in Nashua New Hampshire 2-2-10

President Obama and his pal, Joe Biden, have caught some flak recently for allegedly not living up to campaign promises about being the most transparent presidential administration in U.S. history, especially on negotiations within and without Congress on his beloved healthcare legislation.

During the campaign, Obama promised all negotiations and meetings would be televised on C-SPAN so that the American public could see any deals being made and make their own independent judgments.

More recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid opted to circumvent the normal conference committee procedures to reconcile differing House and Senate healthcare bills and do the rewriting in private without any Republican -- or media -- presence.

C-SPAN founder and president Brian Lamb wrote an open letter to congressional leaders appealing for the meetings to be opened to his unobtrusive technology and cameras. To no avail.

Then, Biden famously had a meeting with the chief of transparency on the $787-billion economic recovery bill. But he closed that transparency meeting to the public.

Tuesday, as it has many times this year, including during last week's session with Republican representatives, the issue came up during Obama's Nashua town hall meeting when....

... a New Hampshire high school student asked the president about the apparent recent inconsistencies. And the president admitted a mistake.

So you can see the president's current rationale, here is their entire exchange from the White House transcript:

Q    My name is Ashley Sevins (phonetic) and I live here in Nashua and attend Nashua High South.  (Applause.) There were a lot of -- during your campaign, there was a lot of promises of transparency, but lately a lot of stuff in the media said that most of healthcare has been behind closed doors. I was just wondering how you would grade yourself on your transparent government.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I've got to be careful about grading myself. (Laughter.) But I will tell you that a recent independent watchdog group took a look and said this has been the most transparent government, most transparent administration, that we have seen in a very, very long time, perhaps in the modern era. (Applause.)

And here's the reason. Let me just list off the things we've done. This is the first White House ever where you know every single person who visits the White House.  Now, that seems like a small thing, but that means any lobbyist, any company -- anybody who comes to visit the White House, you know who it is.

The Recovery Act that I just talked about -- we put every dollar of spending in the Recovery Act on a Web site. You can go and look up right now every dollar that's been spent in the Recovery Act. You know where it's been spent, who got contracts, how it's been spent. That's all there, plain as day, for everybody to see.

So we've put more information online. We declassified things that used to be classified. We've revamped the classification system so it's not used for us to just hide things that might be embarrassing to us. We posted salaries for everybody in the White House all on a website, which as you might imagine, when it comes out, everybody is looking in the White House. (Laughter.) Hmmm. (Laughter.)

But seriously, we very much believe in transparency and accountability.

Now, when it came to the debate, think about all the hours of congressional hearings, all the meetings that were on C-SPAN. They were constant.  It took a year, remember?  I did town hall meetings all across the country in August talking just about healthcare. 

So when people say, well, the negotiations weren't on C-SPAN, what they're frustrated about -- and I take responsibility for this -- is that after Congress had finally gone through its processes, the House had voted on a bill, the Senate had voted on a bill, it is true that I then met with the leaders and chairmen of the House and the Senate to see what differences needed to be resolved in order to get a final package done.  And that wasn't on C-SPAN.

And, look, I made that commitment and I probably should have put it on C-SPAN, although one of the tricky things is trying to figure out, well, if it is on C-SPAN, are people actually going to be saying what they think about trying to get the bill done or is everybody going to be posturing to say things that sound good for the camera.

But I think it is a legitimate criticism to say, if you say that all of it is going to be on C-SPAN, all of it is going to be on C-SPAN.  Which is why, at this point, it's important for me to say that when the Republicans put forward their proposals for what they want to do on healthcare, and we put forward what we want to do on healthcare, I very much want that on C-SPAN, and I want everybody here to watch. (Applause.) 

I want everybody here to watch. Because I think it will be a good educational process for people to weigh the arguments about the relative merits of the bill instead of listening to millions of dollars' worth of insurance industry ads that have been put out there or whatever pundit on the left or the right is saying about these different issues.

So we're going to keep on doing it. Have we gotten it perfect? No. Have we done better than any administration in recent memory? Absolutely. And we'll keep on trying to improve on it.

Now, here's video of a past Jimmy Kimmel late-night take on the administration's transparency via Robert Gibbs, the press secretary:

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press