You Mean We Can Talk Back?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 4, 2008; 1:04 PM

Sometimes, the change is enough to make your head spin. This is one of those moments.

Here's the status quo: A president who has overt contempt for public opinion, who shields himself from opposing views and whose idea of White House Web site interactivity is a video of his dog.

And here's the change: The Obama transition team is actually soliciting public comments on its Web site, reading them and responding to them.

Change.gov last week asked members of the public: What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country? The site's users responded with 3,700 comments -- and were able to vote each others' comments up or down for good measure.

On Tuesday, former Sen. Tom Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's point person on health care, posted a video response. "I spent a lot of the weekend actually reading the comments," he said. "And I have to tell you I'm extremely moved by a lot of the stories that you shared with us. We want to keep this a very open process. We want to make sure that you understand how important those comments and your contributions are. We really want to hear from you, and already have begun to follow through with some of the ideas." Daschle's video has now generated an additional 3,800 comments and counting.

And as of last night, there's a new question on the site: How is the current economic crisis affecting you?

There is, of course, much more Obama's team could be doing to bring transparency to the transition and, eventually, the White House. I recently wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org about ways a reconceived whitehouse.gov Web site could revolutionize the relationship between the public and the presidency, bring the policymaking process into the open, welcome opposing views and encourage accountability.

It's early yet. And it's entirely possible that Obama's team will simply use the Internet as a glorified marketing device. But what's happening on change.gov could be the beginning of a true national conversation.

An Experiment Begins

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "Barack Obama's incoming administration has begun to draw on the high-tech organizational tools that helped get him elected to lay the groundwork for an attempt to restructure the U.S. health-care system. . . .

"The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. . . .

"The Obama team chose to begin its high-tech grass-roots experiment on the issue of health care because 'every American is feeling the pressure of high health costs and lack of quality care, and we feel it's important to engage them in the process of reform,' said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. . . .

"'The Obama administration has learned that listening may be even more important than talking, because it diffuses opposition,' said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a nonpartisan Web site focused on the intersection of politics and technology."

David Ho wrote for the Cox News Service last week: "Building on the president-elect's pioneering, tech-savvy campaign, his team aims to connect the incoming administration directly with citizens through Web sites, blogs and online social networks. . . .

"Looking ahead to a wired White House, 'our first priority is making sure that we keep the millions of people who played an integral role in the campaign engaged in the process,' Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. 'We also recognize now that we have a much larger audience to include: people who didn't vote or didn't vote for us.'"

The transition team yesterday posted a guide to comments: "The conversations among the online community on Change.gov serve two valuable ends, both of which will play a vital role for the incoming Obama-Biden Administration.

"Each discussion between the Transition team and readers provides rich insight into the issues and priorities Americans care passionately about.

"In addition, these disucssions [sic] also allow our team to provide a unique look into the work we do everyday and help make our jobs on the Transition as transparent and open as possible."

Within a few hours after the launch of the initial query, Micah L. Sifry, co-founder of techpresident.com, blogged on his site: "[T]his is a big deal. When you consider that for the last eight years, the occupant of the White House has essentially told the public 'you get input once every four years, after that I'm the decider,' this is huge. . . .

"Imagine what happens if those numbers -- on not just any 'centralized site' but the one that symbolically and perhaps literally has the attention of the President-elect -- start climbing into the five- and six-digits. Before our eyes, we are witnessing the beginning of a rebooting of the American political system."

Greg Elin blogs for the Sunlight Foundation: "For years, government web sites have avoided comments and third-party Web 2.0 tools for fear of confusing user contributed content with official content and violating various policy and compliance rules. What if a user comment posted dropped the f-bomb or stated inaccurate information about a government program? What if an embedded visualization did not conform to section 508 accessibility requirements?

"Yesterday, in one small blog post for a web site, but one giant web page for .gov web sites, Change.gov demonstrated how government sites could begin to join the rest of Web 2.0-kind."

Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month: "The [Obama] campaign employed 95 people in its Internet operation, building a user-friendly Web site that served as a platform for grass-roots activities and distributed statements, policy positions and footage of Obama events. The White House Web operation will follow a similar but probably more ambitious path, transition officials said."

So far, the new-media move that has gotten Obama the most attention is the YouTube video version of his weekly "radio address." But as John Dickerson wrote earlier this month for Slate, that should not be confused with "an exercise in transparency. . . .

"Finding new ways to sell your message is not the same as making yourself more transparent. In fact, obscuring the message with shiny distractions may actually undermine the cause of transparency."

Bubble Watch

Obama last week told ABC's Barbara Walters: "I, you know, one of the things that I'm going to have to work through is how to break through the isolation -- the bubble that exists around the president. And I'm in the process of negotiating with the Secret Service, with lawyers, with White House staff. . . .

"I'm negotiating to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House. Because, one of the worst things I think that could happen to a president is losing touch with what people are going through day to day. . . .

"I want to make sure that I keep my finger on the pulse of the struggles that people are going through every day."

And as I wrote in Monday's column, the way Obama is assembling his brain trust suggests the return of spirited policy debates to a White House that has been largely devoid of them for the last eight years.

The Perils of Transparency

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why the temptation to operate in secrecy has been a hard one for presidents to resist. It can be a little embarrassing at times.

David Ivanovich wrote in the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday: "President-elect Barack Obama has quietly shelved a proposal to slap oil and natural gas companies with a new windfall profits tax.

"An aide for the transition team acknowledged the policy shift Tuesday, after a small-business group discovered the proposal -- touted throughout much of the campaign -- had been dropped from the incoming administration's Web site.

"'President-elect Obama announced the policy during the campaign because oil prices were above $80 per barrel,' the aide said. 'They are below that now and expected to stay below that.'"

Ivanovich explained: "The change in the Obama camp's thinking came to light when officials at the Petaluma, Calif.-based American Small Business League noticed the windfall profits tax language had been removed from the transition team's Web site, www.change.gov, in what the group called 'an unceremonious and abrupt manner.'"

Justice Watch

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post that Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters yesterday that "the Justice Department's new leaders may not gain access to the Bush administration's most sensitive legal opinions until after the January inauguration."

And Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times that Mukasey also said "that he saw no need for President Bush to issue blanket pardons of officials involved in some of the administration's most controversial counterterrorism policies. . . .

"The comments appeared aimed at tamping down speculation that Mr. Bush, before leaving the White House next month, might issue pre-emptive pardons to protect counterterrorism officials from legal jeopardy in the face of possible criminal investigations by the new Democratic administration."

From the transcript:

Q. "If the transition team -- in here now it will have access to the memos by the Office of Legal Counsel?"

Mukasey: "Without getting into particular things that they've requested, they are getting as much as they can, as quickly as they can and one of the things that we need to do when, and particularly as to OLC, which you referred to, they don't simply get issued just for the heck of it. They get issued generally at the request of another agency and so, there's bound to be another agency that has its own equity or interest in the information. And so what we try to do is determine whether, and to what extent, we can clear that information and try to do it as quickly as we can so as to get it to the transition team so that they're aware of all the things that they need when they take over on the 21st."

Q. "So, for instance, if something were classified or a DOD or a CIA matter, it might involve additional layers of negotiation."

Mukasey: "That's another, that raises another issue, which is that people on the transition team are not yet themselves members of government and classification is a whole separate layer."

Q. " . . . You said, the fact that the transition people are not yet members of government makes a difference. We've been told that there was extensive security clearances before the election. So, are you saying even people with Top Secret security clearances who are on the transition team may not have access to some things because they are not yet part of the government?"

Mukasey: "That's a possibility. It's an abstract possibility and I don't want to get into --"

Q. "I guess what I'm wondering is, are there documents that the President-elect's people will not see until January 20th?

Mukasey: "There may very well be."

And on the question of prosecution and pardons:

Mukasey: "What I have said is that there is absolutely no evidence that anybody who rendered a legal opinion, either with respect to surveillance or with respect to interrogation policies, did so for any reason other than to protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful. In those circumstances, there is no occasion to consider prosecution and there is no occasion to consider pardon. If the word goes out to the contrary, then people are going to get the message, which is that if you come up with an answer that is not considered desirable in the future you might face prosecution, and that creates an incentive not to give an honest answer but to give an answer that may be acceptable in the future. It also creates some incentive in people not to ask in the first place."

Torture Watch

Pamela Hess reports for the Associated Press that the retired generals I wrote about in yesterday's column met with Obama's top legal advisers, "pressing their case to overturn some of the Bush administration's terrorism-fighting policies. . . .

"Among those who met with Eric Holder, Obama's pick to be attorney general, and Greg Craig, the incoming White House counsel, were Gen. Charles Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant, and retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, former chief of the Central Command.

"'It's important that the dialogue is going,' Hoar said. 'Part of the challenge here is big and philosophical. Part is nuts and bolts. How do you translate the rhetoric of the campaign and the transition period into action?'"

Midnight Regulations Watch

Vicki Smith writes for the Associated Press: "Angry environmentalists launched an online campaign Wednesday urging President-elect Barack Obama to undo a federal rule that clarifies when coal companies can dump mining waste in streams, calling it a long-awaited 'parting gift' from the Bush administration.

"North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices and others blasted Tuesday's Environmental Protection Agency decision to endorse the mining rule as the death of freshwater streams and the likely start of a new surge in mountaintop removal surface mining across Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky."

Juliet Eilperin wrote in yesterday's Washington Post: "The regulation got signoffs from the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency this week and will go into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The change is intended to resolve a nearly five-year-old fight over how companies can dispose of the vast amounts of rubble and sludge created when they blow the tops off mountains to get to the coal buried below, although the incoming Obama administration could revisit the issue."

Robert Pear and Felicity Barringer wrote in the New York Times: "The rule is one of the most contentious of all the regulations emerging from the White House in President Bush's last weeks in office. . . .

"Mr. Bush has boasted of his efforts to cooperate with President-elect Barack Obama to ensure a smooth transition, but the administration is rushing to complete work on regulations to which Mr. Obama and his advisers object. The rules deal with air pollution, auto safety, abortion and workers' exposure to toxic chemicals, among other issues. . . .

"The coal industry could be the largest beneficiary of last-minute environmental rules.

"'This is unmistakably a fire sale of epic size for coal and the entire fossil fuel industry, with flagrant disregard for human health, the environment or the rule of law,' said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund."

Restructuring Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts, including some associated with the incoming Obama administration, has recommended changes in the White House national security apparatus that would provide the president and his staff with new tools to ensure interagency cooperation.

"Chief among its recommendations is merging the National Security and Homeland Security councils and creating a director for national security who would manage implementation of the president's policies rather than just coordinate the views of Cabinet members and present them to the president, as the national security adviser currently does.

"'The basic deficiency of the current national security system is that parochial departmental and agency interests, reinforced by Congress, paralyze interagency cooperation even as the variety, speed and complexity of emerging security issues prevents the White House from effectively controlling the system,' says the report of the Project on National Security Reform, released yesterday."

About Those Regrets

I wrote in Tuesday's column, Bush Gets Out the Shovel, about Bush's ABC News interview, in which he said "the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that "Bush has come closer than ever to acknowledging that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake -- but not close enough. In Watergate parlance, Bush's concession is a 'modified limited hangout.' . . .

"It might seem churlish, at this late date, to ask Bush to make a frank confession that a war that has killed more than 4,200 Americans was based on a mistake. After all, other figures in Washington -- including Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton -- were misled about the WMD threat. It's also possible that Bush believes that to admit he erred in invading Iraq would be to endorse the charge by his harshest critics that he deliberately deceived the American people about the threat posed by Hussein.

"Still, welcome as his latest remarks are, they fall short of the recognition of reality that would have been cathartic for Bush and for the nation."

Over at Salon, Joan Walsh is even less satisfied: "What a cowardly, buck-passing answer. It was his administration that was responsible for the faulty intelligence; his administration that notoriously 'stove-piped' the available evidence to make the case for war, ignoring all facts that contradicted the neocons' theories, crushing any dissent in the Pentagon and intelligence establishment. His administration then sold that corrupt evidence to Congress and browbeat members into authorizing the use of military force on the eve of the 2002 midterm election, by depicting them as traitors and sissies if they raised questions. Now Bush is trying to say he was misled by the 'failure' of his own intelligence leaders and Cabinet advisors? What a loser."

Some Bump

Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup: "It is common for presidents who are about to leave the White House to receive a bump in their job approval ratings between Election Day and Inauguration Day."

So it's not surprising that Bush's approval rating has gone up a bit in the last few weeks. What's surprising is how little it's gone up.

"In Gallup's final 2008 pre-election poll, 25% of Americans approved of the job Bush was doing as president. In the immediate days after the election, this increased to 28%, and the most recent polling shows Bush with a 29% job approval rating."

By comparison, in the similar period, Clinton's approval went up seven points, from 57 to 63; Bush 41's went up nine points, from 34 to 43; and Reagan's went up six points, from 51 to 57.

First Lady Watch

Marian Burros writes in the New York Times: "The first lady, Laura Bush, got misty-eyed on Wednesday morning when she reminisced about her eight years at the White House at the annual press preview of the holiday decorations, the party menus and the 18 1/2-foot Christmas tree.

"In an informal talk far more wide ranging than at previous holiday sessions -- one year Mrs. Bush answered only two questions -- she went well beyond why the red, white and blue theme was chosen for this year's Christmas (patriotism), the elaborate menus that call for 300 pounds of cheesy grits and 22,000 cookies and how, in keeping with the economy, she and the president would carefully spend their Christmas money on a house in Dallas in January. She spoke nostalgically about what she would miss most."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart on Bush "taking whatever his equivalent of a victory lap would be": "The most fun of these exit interviews with the president, though, is going to be watching the news anchors delicately assess whether this president realizes just how bad he has [bleeped] this thing up."

John Hodgman then tells Stewart that he is a lame duck, too. "When Bush goes, you go. That's the end of comedy."

Cartoon Watch

Duane Powell on the lines outside the White House and Rob Rogers on Bush's advice.

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