CHICAGO—Veterans of the Clinton administration—who know something about tapping into voter anger towards Washington with pledges to root out special-interest influence, trim the size of government, and shine a floodlight on its inner workings—warn that Barack Obama will have a tough time balancing his campaign's promises of openness with his office's powers should he win the presidency.
Over 21 months of campaigning, Obama has promised a new brand of government that would negotiate a health care plan on C-SPAN, require agencies to conduct business in public, and force lobbyist meetings into the open.
It's not yet clear how a nominee who's maintained such tight control over his campaign would transition into a president who opens his administration to public scrutiny.
“The intention of all of these proposals are admirable, and I have no doubt that government can move some considerable distance down this road, but I just don’t think President Obama will be able to get as far as he wants to,” said William A. Galston, a former policy adviser in the Clinton administration and a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution.
“Transparency and efficiency are not conflicting principles,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “In fact they often work hand in hand as a more transparent government is a more accountable government. From the beginning, this campaign has been about the American people from the 3.2 million individuals who have contributed an average of $86 to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have spent hours working to send Barack Obama to the White House. When Barack Obama is president the government will be about them and not about Washington insiders who have controlled government for far to long.”
Voters would at the least have the benefit of a scorecard. Obama has produced far more detailed plans than his opponent – which set benchmarks that would make it simple to track his successes and failures as president.
One of his most repeated pledges – from the Iowa caucuses through the late summer – is to negotiate a health care plan on C-SPAN, televising a process that under President Clinton was conducted behind closed doors.
“I’m going to have all the negotiations around a big table,” Obama said in Virginia in August. “We’ll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrator. 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’ll 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 drug companies or the insurance companies.”
Though he said for months that lobbyists won't "dominate" his White House, they would still be able to work in an Obama administration — just not for two years in an area related to their work as lobbyists. For example, a Sierra Club lobbyist could not move directly into the Environmental Protection Agency, but might be able to do so after two years of working elsewhere in the administration.
Another proposal would require that interactions between lobbyists and regulatory agency commissioners or staff be made public. They "could be broadcast online, open to the public or disclosed in some way,” Psaki explained when asked how Obama, as he states in his open government proposals, would make citizens privy to these exchanges.
And Obama has said he would order his appointees who lead executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct "significant" business in public, so that any citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet as agencies debate and deliberate.”
Obama has also vowed to strengthen revolving door provisions between government and busiess, create a “SWAT” team to root out wasteful spending, cut federal contracts by 10 percent and require all legislative sessions, including committee mark ups and conference committees, to be conducted in public (though most, if not all, already are).
The ideas are targeted, but his language is vague enough to allow wiggle room, experts say.
“There is a lot of ambiguity in this,” Galston said. “There are meetings that go on all over the place, everyday. I can’t quite believe that all of them will be up on the Internet.”
Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a progressive policy think tank that leans Democratic, said he sees parallels between Obama’s plan and Clinton’s pledge in 1992 to cut the White House staff by 25 percent – the symbol of his overall platform to reduce and reorganize government in a year when, like 2008, "change" was a more popular mantra than "experience."
“His staff will struggle to comply with what will eventually feel to them as arbitrary rules,” said Bennett, a former Clinton administration aide. “I go back to the Clinton vow to cut the White House staff by 25 percent. It was arbitrary and capricious. It was very hard to do and caused significant trouble and he got zero political benefit out of it.”
Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House, said the former president “cursed that pledge. It was a very bad idea that he felt compelled to honor. He went all the way down this road then I think he ran into real trouble.”
Obama might rethink his some of open government pledges if elected, Galston said. On negotiating a health care plan on TV, Galston said "lots of luck."
“At some point he is going to ask himself, ‘Would I be willing to have a certain conversation in public?’” he said. “If the answer is no, then he will have to ask himself if there are other people who don’t want to conduct their business in public. … These proposals are on the right track and if he is serious and persistent, he can make progress. But there are limits imposed by reality. Not all the people’s business can or should be conducted in public.”
If lessons can be drawn from the 21-month campaign, Obama has a mixed record on openness.
He was the first candidate to invite the press into his fundraisers and to work with media outlets on establishing protective pool coverage, which allows reporters to track his whereabouts around the clock. In contrast to McCain, he does not accept money from political action committees or federal registered lobbyists.
But he’s lapsed in other areas. After initially welcoming the idea, Obama did little to follow through on McCain’s proposal to hold a series of town hall meetings. The Democratic nominee indicated he would accept public financing in the general election, but ultimately did not. The campaign offers access to its policy advisers, but at the same time, stymied the media from speaking with some friends and associates about the Obamas. His campaign has not said whether Obama would abolish the White House political office, a key piece of Karl Rove's empire that McCain has already pledged to eliminate.
Obama, unlike McCain, has refused to voluntarily release information on donors who have given less than $200, even as his campaign frequently touts the fact that they comprise half of the $605 million his campaign has raised through September.
“Tell him to release his donors, or his running mate’s earmarks,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said, referring to Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has not disclosed his earmark requests prior to this year. “’Transparent government’ is like the punch-line to a bad joke for Barack Obama.”
But when asked exactly how McCain would increase transparency, Bounds did not respond.
Norm Ornsein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who has worked with both men on bills to improve government, said he sees Obama as “courageous” and “someone who was pretty committed to reform.”
But the longtime observer of government, weighing the cost-benefit ratio of delving into reform at the start of administration, offered a warning: “I would not make this the centerpiece. You’ve got too many other fish to fry. You got too many other things to do.