President Obama’s first moves earned him triumphant headlines: “Obama Freezes Pay, Toughens Ethics and Lobbying Rules,” and “Obama sets new course.”
But some of his biggest accomplishments are twinned with the word “but”: Lobbyists are banned, but exceptions can and will be made; orders on ending torture and secret prisons contain loopholes and provisos.
Call it the fine print, an exception, a waiver, but there have been caveats to many of Mr. Obama’s first actions.
The lobbying issue has drawn the most ire, especially since Mr. Obama spent so much time blasting lobbyists on the campaign trail.
“Change we can believe in, as long as we pay attention to the disappointing asterisk on the word ‘change,’ ” complained Rachel Maddow, a liberal talk-show host for MSNBC.
Miss Maddow on Friday night blasted Mr. Obama for having former lobbyists in his administration, saying that his campaign-trail promise that lobbyists would not run his White House “sounded great; too great to be entirely true, it turns out.”
White House aides suggest the criticism is nonsense, since even transition officials warned months ago there would be exceptions to lobbying bans for people they consider exceptionally talented. Others point out that so many people leave government to earn money with consulting and lobbying that it would be tough to staff any administration without needing to bend the rules.
But Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, ripped into the new administration for so quickly bending the lobbying rules.
“He got the good headlines, and their intentions were really good, but carving out so many exceptions is silly. They should stop pretending they are following the rule when they are not,” she said. “They say they have a policy of no lobbyists, and yet every day we hear about a new lobbyist.”
Nearly two dozen executive-branch hires, all the way up to Cabinet level, have been registered federal lobbyists, with the most-prominent being Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and William Lynn, the No. 2 man at the Pentagon.
Obama supporters say they understand he must be flexible, and they say the president already has offered sweeping changes to the government by reversing the Bush administration decisions that Democrats considered the most offensive.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was put on the defensive over the lobbying issue Wednesday, bantering with reporters about people who earned exemptions who “technically” aren’t lobbyists.
Mr. Gibbs urged reporters to “step back and talk about the broader issue of ethics and transparency in this administration … [which are] unlike any policy we’ve seen in any previous administration in the history of our country.” He said the new rules are “not a perfect policy, but a step in the right direction of changing the way Washington works.”
“We’ve talked about the fact that there are people that are good public servants who wish to serve their government, again, who are, through some stringent ethics requirements and recusals - that will be able to participate in helping this government, but that we have, again, the strongest ethics and transparency policy that govern the executive branch and the workings of this White House that we’ve seen in the history of our country.”
Mr. Gibbs would not define what he meant when he said he expected a “limited number” of waivers for the policy.