Obama dodges question on his transparency promises

The president says meetings with healthcare execs have been public, but ignores the real issue

Published July 23, 2009 1:30AM (EDT)

Presidnet Obama's prime-time press conference probably won't end up making that much news -- if anything, a question he took about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates might end up as the most-discussed thing from it.

One of Obama's responses to a reporter's question, though, deserves some attention. Specifically, the response to this question from the Chicago Tribune's Christi Parsons:

During the campaign, you promised that health care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN, and that hasn't happened, and your administration recently turned down a request from a watchdog group seeking a list of health care executives who have visited the White House to talk about health care reform .... So my question for you is, are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?

We've previously covered the watchdog group's request in War Room. What it boils down to is that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the Secret Service for White House visitors' logs regarding healthcare executives who've come to the White House for meetings on reform proposals. The administration denied the request, adopting an argument previously made by the Bush administration when it wanted to keep records about Vice President Cheney's energy task force secret.

In response to Parsons, Obama said, "Well, on the list of health care executives who visited us, most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures, so it hasn't been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But, frankly, these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating."

That may be true -- but it doesn't really go to the heart of the transparency issue. Maybe this time the public knows what industry types have been in White House meetings even without the visitor logs. But fundamentally, the Obama adminstration is still adopting legal positions about executive power and secrecy that the president said he opposed when he was campaigning. Just because the administration happens to have made the names public anyway doesn't mean they'll do the same next time around.

Then, regarding his promise that healthcare reform negotiations would be televised on C-SPAN, Obama said:

With respect to all of the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kickoff event was here on C- SPAN and, at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings. Senate Finance is having a meeting; the House is having a meeting. If they wanted those to be on C-SPAN, then I would welcome it. I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.

That's not what his campaign promise was about, though. On the trail in August of last year, Obama had this to say:

I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies — they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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