It’s as if the president were to thank environmentalists for an award by serving lunch with paper plates and plastic forks that weren’t recyclable: After a two-week delay, President Obama this week received an award from transparency and good-government advocates in a closed-door Oval Office meeting that wasn’t on his public schedule — a snub that’s angering the folks who met with him.
Obama earned the award, timed to coincide with the recent Sunshine Week festivities, in recognition for his push to open up the federal government by requiring agencies to fulfill more Freedom of Information requests, publicly disclosing White House visitor logs, and posting more government information online for the general public to review. Good-government groups believe Obama has done more in two years than any of his predecessors did to open wide the often-closed doors of government.
The White House canceled the initial meeting two weeks ago amid preparations for the Libyan air strikes and the government’s response to the Japanese earthquake.
Considering the meeting’s focus on transparency, the optics of the rescheduled meeting might not sit well with outside observers: The Oval Office meeting occurred Monday in between Obama’s appearance at a televised town hall on Hispanic concerns and his widely watched television speech on military operations in Libya, according to the advocates. It didn’t appear on his publicly-released daily schedule, there’s been no official White House readout of the meeting, no photos released and no transcript of the exchange.
Yes, the president is entitled to and frequently holds private Oval Office meetings. But it seems counter to the president’s stated priorities, and insulting to the people presenting him with the award for failing to publicly disclose the meeting.
“It’s almost a theater of the absurd to have an award on transparency that isn’t transparent,” said Gary Bass, founder of OMB Watch, and one of five transparency advocates who met with Obama on Monday. “The irony is that everything the president said was spot-on. I wish people had heard what he had to say.”
Bass was joined at the meeting by Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org and Lucy A. Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Bass, Brian and Dalglish later blogged about the meeting.
All five groups have criticized the Obama White House and previous administrations for withholding government information or failing to disclose it in a timely manner. (Dalglish’s attendance at the private meeting may seem most questionable to the White House press corps, considering her group serves as a legal advocacy group for reporters and includes several prominent journalists on its steering committee.)
Bass insists the group didn’t realize the White House failed to disclose the meeting to reporters. “I think this is a particularly bad situation and I’m not going to try to defend the president on that,” he said.
Brian called it “crazy stupid” for the White House to keep mum about the meeting. “He even made a joke when we walked in the room about how he wanted to make sure we would be listed on the White House visitors logs,” she said in an e-mail. “Someone on the White House staff should get their butt kicked for this one.”
Brian said she isn’t as concerned about the privacy of the meeting because a White House videographer filmed the exchange — but members of the White House press corps have panned the distribution of White House-produced video news releases, arguing they are no substitute for unfiltered, independent press access to the president.
Blanton said that despite the lack of access, the group enjoyed about 20 minutes of discussion with Obama on open government issues and another hour-long sitdown with White House Counsel Bob Bauer about how to ensure agencies continue to work on their concerns.
And despite the snub, they stand by their decision to grant Obama the award, even if, as Bass put it, the president subsequently shot himself in the foot for keeping the meeting private.
If the groups decide to award Obama again for his efforts, perhaps they should insist the White House publicly disclose the meeting and ask that it be open to the press or held at a public event. Perhaps they should also ensure these details before walking into any meeting with him. At the risk of damaging hard-earned reputations, face time with the president shouldn’t trump one’s principles.
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