The Last 100 Days: Obama’s (non)transparency edition

Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is running The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his final months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. We will also look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.

It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.

And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.

And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.

In this sixth installment, we look at the never-ending debate over Obama’s approach to government transparency and openness.


President Barack Obama came into office in 2009 promising “the most transparent administration in history.” In 2016, the reporters who cover him only ever utter that promise as an ironic joke, typically when they’ve been denied information. But Obama has a good case to make that he has kept his promise.

That assessment might get a cheer from his aides. But reporters and transparency advocates probably won’t be joining in, because “most transparent administration in history” is measured against a terrible baseline. (Disclosure: I sit on the board of the White House Correspondents Association, which constantly argues for greater transparency and access.)

Obama’s standard has technical shortcomings. Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important way to measure an administration’s openness. But the law is just 50 years old, so there’s no way to measure him against a majority of his predecessors on that score. And when this White House boasts (accurately) about putting more information online than any other administration, it’s not very meaningful as a comparison with pre-Internet presidents.

The phrase also sets a low bar. To be “most transparent,” Obama only needs to be even slightly less secretive than other presidents, rather than meet tougher standards set by independent open-government champions or sought by the press.

As Seamus Kraft, creator of the pro-transparency OpenGov Foundation, puts it: “The president ran on an ambitious openness agenda of ‘transparency, public participation and collaboration.’ Eight years later, progress has been made. But it’s pretty clear that in This Town, closed still trumps open.”

In fact, the idea that Obama would benefit merely by being relatively more open was baked into his promises in 2008.

“His ability to talk about transparency was an effective way for him to illustrate some of the differences with the (George W.) Bush administration,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing on Monday. “President Obama was very interested in making a more forceful and clear case about the different approach to governing the country that he would pursue.”

Nearly eight years later, evaluating Obama’s record on questions of transparency and openness — and guessing what elements of his approach his successor might preserve or abandon — has gained fresh importance, given recent events in the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of her health scare on the anniversary of 9/11, and Donald Trump’s refusal to abide by the decades-old, bipartisan precedent of candidates releasing their tax returns aren’t equivalent — his break with tradition and transparency is starker than hers. But reporters don’t see an open-government champion in either.

Neither candidate has yet enabled a “protective pool” — a small group of reporters who follow virtually every move a presidential hopeful makes. It’s an arrangement that is typically in place by the summer before an election. And it’s what the winner in November will find awaiting him or her at the White House, a setup based on the principle that an independent press, not merely a cadre of loyal aides, should be on hand to chronicle a presidency.

Having a protective pool wouldn’t have erased all of Clinton’s errors on Sunday. But on the other hand, the press would not have been reduced to speculating about where she had suddenly gone, since their representatives would have been in tow. And senior aides would have had in-person opportunities to explain to reporters what was going on with the candidate and why, rather than keep quiet for most of the day, before issuing a written statement explaining that she had pneumonia, which she had been diagnosed with on Friday.

Clinton could have disclosed her illness earlier, but was hardly required to by precedent. Major politicians tend not to reveal a physical ailment before they are forced to, either in anticipation of visible evidence (see George W. Bush’s pretzel incident) or because it will become public anyway when the results of their physical exams are released, as tradition now requires.

Still, her penchant for secrecy (her aides might call it “privacy”) unsettled some Democrats. “Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted Monday. “What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?”

As so many campaign trail flaps do, this one wound its way from the trail to the White House, where Earnest praised the press for pushing for greater transparency but delivered a sobering message to a press corps already worriedly wondering what life will be like under Obama’s successor, whoever that turns out to be.

“The only real constituency for transparency in government is all of you,” he said. “Transparency in its own right is not something that a lot of voters are going to consider.”

It’s not a threat, or at least not completely. It’s also a “Help me help you” message: The people that reporters expect to push for greater access inside the White House say they need to be able to show positive results from greater openness, in order to win internal debates with those arguing for secrecy. When reporters only complain, the argument goes, they are undercutting those who might be their most effective allies.

Earnest had previewed this message on Aug. 31, first in a New York Times letter to the editor and then again in a question-and-answer session with reporters on Air Force One, each time warning reporters against griping about limited transparency.

“Effective advocacy must remain credible, and preserving that credibility involves giving credit where it’s due,” he said, suggesting that reporters’ failure to praise Obama’s record would remove a key incentive for future presidents to embrace openness over their natural penchant for secrecy. “There is,” he cautioned, “no built-in political incentive for any politician to do that.”

Earnest is right that “government transparency” isn’t going to displace the economy or national security from the top of most voters’ lists of concerns. But the constituency for government openness clearly also includes outside advocacy groups, like the Sunlight Foundation. And on specific issues, the public expresses a preference for greater disclosures. A Quinnipiac poll in August found that 74 percent of Americans said Trump should make his tax returns public, as opposed to 21 percent who said he should not.

In his briefing, Earnest also listed areas in which the administration feels it has made genuine strides and where reporters — while keeping the pressure on for more openness — ought to show a little more gratitude. He cited the White House practice of making public its visitor logs, known as WAVES, and Obama’s intermittent practice of allowing a print pool reporter to attend the early portion of his fundraisers.

“There aren’t a lot of people who are — outside of the press corps — who are checking out the WAVES records on a regular basis or reading the pool reports that you guys generate from the president’s comments at fundraisers,” Earnest said.

Obama aides also defend his transparency record by pointing to the official White House website’s petitions page, where citizens can lobby their president, and the unprecedented publication of 180,000 government data sets via

The WAVES example is perhaps the most interesting, a genuinely worthwhile initiative that is also deeply flawed and showcases the administration’s struggle to reconcile its stated commitment to openness with government’s typical propensity for secrecy. It’s also useful to look at because Obama aides point to the WAVES disclosure as something his successor won’t be able to roll back without courting controversy.

A White House document defending Obama’s record on transparency cites his “voluntary, proactive disclosure of visitor logs” and calls this a “stark contrast” to the Bush administration’s decision to fight the disclosure in court.

That’s a rather rosy portrayal of the president’s record. While it’s true that his predecessor had fought the visitor disclosures in court, so did Obama. It was only in mid-September 2009 that, on advice of White House lawyers, the administration settled the case and announced that the records would be public.

The resulting page on the official White House web site does provide unprecedented data — 5.64 million searchable visitor entries (including tourists) as of late August. The logs clearly meet the “most transparent administration” standard: No other president has overseen this specific kind of disclosure. Reporters have used the tool to document lobbyist access to the White House, information the administration might be expected to try to conceal.

So why don’t the logs document a May 29, 2014, lunch between Obama and Hillary Clinton, who was already expected at the time to be gearing up to run for president? The answer lies in the exceptions to who gets listed in the public records. In that case, it was due to a White House policy that visitors making “purely personal” stops “that do not involve any official or political business” won’t appear in the logs.

But White House officials have made clear to Yahoo News that there is no objective standard for predicting whether a visit will involve any such business, and that aides don’t ask after the fact whether any business was conducted. The White House also applied the “purely personal” label to a June 2015 Prince (RIP) concert for 500 people, including several Wall Street CEOs. And the White House applies the same logic outside Washington. When Obama dined in June 2015 with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg — one of the president’s biggest campaign donors — the White House first tried to keep the event a secret, then labeled it a “dinner with friends.”

Speaking of “friends,” while it’s true that Obama has often let print pool reporters hear his opening pitch at private events with rich donors, that access isn’t guaranteed. According to data compiled by Mark Knoller of CBS News, the White House press corps’ unrivaled archivist, 29 of Obama’s 60 political fundraisers in this cycle were closed to press coverage.

On FOIA, the White House says that the Obama administration processed “a record high” of 770,000 requests in fiscal year 2015, and that at least 92 percent of the requests “resulted in the release of either some or all of the requested records.”

But an Associated Press analysis of FOIA compliance contradicts those figures and paints a darker picture. Its figures show that the administration “set a record” for the number of times it reported that federal employees “couldn’t find a single page requested.”

Critics of the administration have highlighted other practices, like requiring public affairs minders to attend journalists’ interviews with policy aides. Obama aides bristle when reporters point out that he has prosecuted more national security leakers than his predecessors, arguing that he is protecting vital secrets. But at least some of those punished tried at first to go through established procedures for blowing the whistle on questionable practices before going to the press. And, after a series of high-profile controversies, the administration was forced to rewrite the rules for dealing with reporters who receive leaks.

Which takes us to the question of access — broadly defined as the news media’s ability to see the president at work, firsthand, and ask questions of him and top policy makers. There have been smart efforts to compare Obama to his predecessors throughout history, but one aspect of his communications strategy clearly has no precedent: the use of in-house digital content, which has reduced his White House’s dependence on the traditional press. At times, the White House excludes the media in favor of chronicling an event solely with what amounts to propaganda. As I have noted, Clinton has already embraced that communications approach, producing a podcast in which a loyal employee lobbed gentle questions in her direction.

Whether readers conclude that Obama met his “most transparent” standard, or that he fell so short that he deserves little credit, two things are sure. First, that the next president will draw lessons from his record. And second, that the press will keep making its case.