Obama's 1st openness report card: C average

January 17, 2010 

"When it comes to openness in government, President Barack Obama gets it."

That's how I started a column a year ago, in which I shared my pleasure at our new commander-in-chief's pledge to yank open the curtains of secrecy that had increasingly become the modus operandi in the nation's capital.

If you'll recall, Obama wasted no time in stressing the need for greater openness and transparency in government. On his first day in office, he directed federal agencies and officials to go out of their way to make more information public, a virtual about-face from the Bush administration.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," the new president said. "The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known. ... The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it."

Those words -- and his promise that "transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency" -- were sweet indeed to those concerned about and committed to openness in government.

A year later, how has Obama done in keeping his promises?

My sense is that things are better today than they were a year ago. And they're certainly a far cry from the days of the prior administration, when Bush officials in effect thumbed their nose at the public's right to know as they closed the curtains of secrecy ever tighter and tighter.

Still, despite the progress that's been made, there's much still to be done.

That's also the conclusion of the latest "report card" issued by the Columbia Journalism Review, which keeps close tabs on openness in government.

The report card -- available online at www.cjr.org/ transparency/report_card.php -- scores Obama on everything from the Freedom of Information Act to state secrets to White House visitor records.

His grades range from an A to an F and an incomplete, with an overall C average. That's certainly higher than George W. earned, but it's still, well, it's still only a C.

Obama scored his highest mark, an A-, on making White House visitor records public. The minus comes because it took too long, and still not all the visits are made public.

His lowest grade was an F for using off-the-record and anonymous briefings to divulge information without being held accountable.

In between those grades were two B's -- for improving agency responses to public FOIA requests and for supporting a long overdue federal shield law protecting journalists -- and two D's -- for failing to sufficiently modify the state secrets doctrine and for failing to make more government data available to the public online.

And Obama's report card has an incomplete for a lack of progress in implementing his first-day open government directive.

Bureaucracy is a beast whose behavior is hard to change. And when its the largest beast in the land, changing the behavior is even harder, even for the most powerful official in the land.

It will be interesting to see if Obama is able to raise his GPA in the second year of his presidency.

More important than watching what happens in Washington, D.C., we'll be continuing to keep a close eye on our local agencies and officials, acting as your watchdog in making sure that the public's business -- your business -- is done out in the open, and that the public -- you -- has full access to the information and records the law says you're entitled to.

Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, can be reached at mvasche@modbee.com or 578-2356.

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