President Obama ran in 2008 while making big promises on transparency and ethics, including vows to ban lobbyists from working for him, to throw open negotiations on health care legislation, to speed freedom-of-information requests and to let voters have direct input before he signed bills into law.
He is making no such promises in this year’s campaign, though, nor is he taking a victory lap on those old vows.
That’s because while he made some progress — particularly in making White House visitor logs public — his record on the other promises falls short of what he pledged.
Freedom-of-information requests are taking even longer, dozens of lobbyists have earned waivers to work for him, the presidential public campaign finance system remains unusable and, more recently, House investigators have released documents showing the backroom deals he cut with health insurance industry players to win support for his 2010 overhaul.
“We were pretty excited when he first came in about his commitment to transparency — that seemed pretty good compared to the Bush years,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an open-government group. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t panned out that way. If anything, the Obama administration is less transparent than prior administrations.”
A transparency report to be released Monday by the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute gives the administration an abysmal grade for “virtually ignoring” Mr. Obama’s promise to post laws on the White House website for five days before the president signs them, in order to give voters a chance to email their comments.
Cato also tested all 20 Cabinet-level agencies and said 19 failed to obey the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Transparency advocates held high hopes for Mr. Obama, and for much of the first two years of his tenure they said he should be given more time to show progress. When his administration was slow to begin posting legislation online in 2009, they gave him a pass.
But many of those advocates have soured on the White House.
One of Mr. Obama’s most prominent vows was a promise to ban lobbyists from working for his administration. He signed an executive order to that effect, but also allowed a waiver, which he has used dozens of times.
One area where Mr. Obama fulfilled a pledge — making White House visitor logs public — turned out to be a somewhat empty victory. It turned out that officials were holding meetings with lobbyists just across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. when they wanted to keep those dealings secret.
Open-government groups say Mr. Obama even began to push back against FOIA requests, asking courts to reverse decades of precedent that held exceptions to the law should be “narrowly construed” so as to promote maximum transparency.
“We do not embrace that principle,” Assistant Solicitor General Anthony Yang told Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2011.
The admission was particularly stunning considering Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s instructions on the first day of the administration that the executive branch was going to approach FOIA requests with a presumption toward disclosure.
Ms. Lynch said she has experienced serious resistance to her requests for information about predator drone flights in the U.S. She recently filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security demanding answers about how and why it loans out its drones to other law enforcement agencies across the country.