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.
When confronted with new Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell’s affiliation with a firm that had extensive lobbying clients throughout the Middle East, Mr. Gibbs demurred.
“I hate to be ticky-tack about it, but technically, he’s not lobbying,” he said. “He wasn’t a lobbyist, he wasn’t registered to lobby, and if you’re not registered to lobby, you can’t be a lobbyist.”
Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University professor of government focusing on the American presidency, called lobbyist waivers necessary to achieving Mr. Obama’s goals, particularly given how Washington has worked.
“It’s hard to find people in Washington who haven’t lobbied, because when they leave government they sell their knowledge and access and become lobbyists or PR specialists,” he said.
The Obama administration also took heat last week when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner named former Goldman Sachs lobbyist Mark Patterson as his chief of staff, despite imposing at virtually the same time tough new Treasury rules limiting contacts with lobbyists.
Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, said the hire “flies in the face” of the president’s new ethics guidelines.
“On Day One, Secretary Geithner confirmed to me why I opposed his nomination,” Mr. Bunning said. “I hope for the sake of the American worker this hypocritical appointment is the only mistake Secretary Geithner makes during his tenure at the Treasury Department.”
In other issues from Mr. Obama’s first weeks in office, the president declared the United States would not torture, but his advisers left wiggle room as he created a task force to study whether interrogation techniques that go beyond the Army Field Manual might be necessary.
“This is not an invitation to bring back different techniques than those that are approved inside the Army Field Manual, but an invitation to this task force to make recommendations as to whether or not there should be a separate protocol that’s more appropriate to the intelligence community,” a senior administration official told reporters the day Mr. Obama signed the executive order.
The official told reporters not to jump to conclusions, saying the task force was “not an exception,” and insisted: “This is not a secret annex that allows us to bring the enhanced interrogation techniques back. It’s not.”
But some constitutional experts and peace groups are skeptical, and liberal bloggers such as Tremayne, from OpenLeft.com, labeled the task force a loophole.
“Since Obama spent many years teaching constitutional law, I doubt he needs a task force to help him form an opinion on the torture-loophole idea,” the blogger wrote, adding that a loophole would be “morally wrong.”
“President Obama made great strides in restoring international respect for the United States this week. Creating a torture loophole would have the opposite effect,” Tremayne wrote. “Let’s hope the ‘task force’ is just a bit of politics.”
Becky Monroe, policy counsel for the Constitution Project, said the group has been pleased so far by the executive orders on torture and on closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, terrorist detention facility within one year, even though the closure may hit roadblocks as lawyers study where to send the detainees.
“We are reserving judgment to see how things are actually implemented,” she said. “We are optimistic, and the first steps that we’ve seen coming from the administration only strengthen that optimism.”