President Barack Obama and his team have been resting on the strength of their social media efforts in the 2008 election for some time now. While they have been doing so, the world of digital media has passed them by, creating venues for political mobilization, policy debate and checks and balances unseen in any previous administration. In short, the right has overtaken the digital space in response to a largely secretive and out-of-control White House. But Robert Gibbs has a new spin on the White House’s social media efforts.
In an interview with The Hill newspaper, via Twitter, the current White House press secretary said: “The president campaigned on an open and transparent administration, and it’s clear that the ability for citizens of this country to directly question those that work in the government [via Twitter] is an obvious and good thing.”
Sorry Robert, nice try. While it is commendable that the White House makes any effort to open new dialogue streams with citizens, the occasional tweet or YouTube video does not equate to “transparency.” In fact, this has been the most non-transparent government perhaps in decades.
Twitter is a vehicle for information; a means to an end. Its use is by no means synonymous with releasing more information in a timely manner to allow for a more informed electorate. That the White House does not understand, or fails to admit, this shows how far removed they are from the social media phenomenon.
To say this White House is transparent would ignore the past two years of legislative history. Remember the “Pelosi Rule”? The soon-to-be former Speaker of the House famously said: “We’ll have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.” She was referring to Obamacare; a bill that was initially jammed through on Christmas Eve 2009, loaded with backroom deals like the Cornhusker Kickback, the Florida Gator-Aid, and the Louisiana Purchase. President Obama promised deliberations would be “televised on C-SPAN” but that promise was broken. The legislation was the quintessence of shady, non-transparent politics which the voters ultimately rejected in November 2010.
Or take the new START treaty. For months legislators requested that the administration release the negotiating record so they could appropriately understand the intent and obligations of the preamble and other sections. This had been done in the past with the ABM and INF treaties under President Ronald Reagan. But alas, the White House would not even entertain such requests and again, jammed through ratification during the pre-Christmas week of 2010.
Also this week, the FCC passed a net neutrality regulation that enables the Obama administration to take over another sixth of the economy without congressional oversight and in spite of contrary court orders. The FCC not only didn’t release the regulation the panel was voting on before the vote, but they don’t plan on releasing the agreed-upon package until everyone is comfortably enjoying their holidays and not paying attention. In fact, the FCC shut down their website for a week prior to the vote for “scheduled maintenance.”
These examples are in addition to the too-numerous-to-count spending bills that were brought to congressional floor outside the committee process, demanding votes from legislators who hadn’t even seen a copy of the bill, like the recent Omnibus Spending bill.
President Obama did spend some time taking town-hall questions over the past two years. Unfortunately, time after time they were staged events loaded with hand-picked campaign volunteers with scripted questions.
Recently, the White House eliminated the position of “ethics czar”, previously held by Norm Eisen, which was dedicated to “transparency.” Some of his responsibilities were transferred to a high-powered political lobbyist the White House hired.
This week, the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten reported that the White House has been holding regular meetings with liberal groups at a downtown Washington hotel. The meetings were reported as “closed-door sessions between top Obama aides and officials from dozens of left-leaning interest groups such as unions, youth voting groups, women’s organizations, gay rights advocates and civil rights activists.” Wallsten continued: “Attendees are required to keep all proceedings secret and off the record.”
Do these sound like the actions of a transparent White House? Surely, Robert Gibbs could have hand-selected, and answered, a couple questions from Twitter about Obamacare, START, the FCC or spending and given his spin via YouTube or any other broadcast method, but would that excuse the underlying process in which this White House operates? Of course not.
The White House uses social media in the same way that they use the television cameras or radio microphones in daily press briefings – as a vehicle for their message. But without hard-hitting questions that aren’t selected or expected, you can not begin to describe such activity as part of an aura of transparency.
This past summer, North Korea launched a Twitter and YouTube page which MSNBC described as a way for the “communist country to push its propaganda.” Gibbs can follow Pyongyang’s propaganda @uriminzok (aka “our nation”). Surely, Robert Gibbs doesn’t view North Korea as transparent?
The Hill’s Michael O’Brien correctly described Gibbs’ use of Twitter as a way for the White House to “to break news and enhance their messaging”. For it to be called anything but that is transparently ridiculous.
You can follow Rory Cooper on Twitter @rorycooper