“Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,” Robert Gibbs implored the White House press corps. “Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on.”
That’s 16 “hold ons” President Obama’s chief spokesman reeled off Friday at his regular briefing, with a few more following, after a brief interlude.
That’s the kind of verbal salvo you lay down when you’re on the defensive, representing a boss who over-promised on the campaign trail and now under-delivered from the Oval Office, when it comes to pledges of transparency.
I don’t know how many folks, especially experienced political hands, really expected Obama to broadcast healthcare reform talks on C-SPAN.
But that’s what candidate Obama said he would do. He promised, on several occasions, that the American people would be able to see for themselves whether their government represented their healthcare interests.
It’s been clear for months -- and especially now as Democrats try to fashion a bill, even as a Massachusetts senate race erasestheir filibuster-proof majority -- that the president and the majority party have no intention of broadcasting the healthcare endgame, if they ever did.
That’s turned the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room into a regular skirmish zone, not just on specifics like the scuttled C-SPAN/healthcare promise but on the larger suspicion by the media that the “change” president has settled into the same cloak-and-swagger habits as some of his predecessors.
It’s an age-old dance -- reporters push for information, even some they know they’ll never receive. Politicians push back -- with descriptions of how much they’ve done and all the reasons they can’t do more.
Tension between the press and the Obama administration has peaked in part because of the candidate’s bold promises about being more open.
As the president’s popularity has declined, some reporters have sensed the already reserved leader pulling back even more.
Obama hasn’t held a full-fledged news conference in half a year. One press-freedom advocate -- saying Obama has been more talk than action -- gave the president a C-plus on freedom of information issues.
“The judge of a true leader,” wrote David Cuillier, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists committee on public information, “is one who can stand the heat and be transparent even when the information is politically meddlesome.”
Cuillier praised Obama for directing more government databases to be made available online and for Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s directive to federal agencies to presume records should be open.
But Cuillier hit Obama for keeping under wraps photos depicting abuse of Iraqis by U.S. troops, fighting release of some White House visitor logs and for secret talks over healthcare.
“Reporters want as much access as possible and the White House wants to restrict access as much as possible,” said one veteran reporter, who asked not to be named for fear of further alienating the administration. “Reporters don’t feel they have as much access as they deserve, so there’s some frustration. What’s new?”
What’s both old and new for Obama is the press’ demand for accountability on the promise to televise healthcare reform talks.
In full campaign mode at a town hall meeting in Chester, Va., in August 2008, Obama made it sound like healthcare reform talks would be a whole new ballgame.
“I’m going to have all the negotiations around a big table,” the then-Illinois senator promised. “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.”
Almost exactly two years ago in Los Angeles, Obama promised C-SPAN televised talks and transparency that would “offset the power of the special interests and the lobbyists.”
From the time they first heard the pledge, some veteran journalists were sure they were hearing high-flying campaign talk that would collapse under the reality of governing.
Even if hearings between pharmaceutical companies, hospital owners, consumer advocates and others could be put on camera, wouldn’t the real deals be hatched when no one was watching?
In fact, the protracted talks have been far more transparent than President Clinton’s secretive 1993 medical reform push, said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
This time, C-SPAN did carry March White House talks. Later, several congressional committees held public hearings.
Some actual bill drafting at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also took place in the open.
But, as McClatchy Newspapers reported in July, “the two biggest deals in the early negotiations -- industry agreements to cut drug and hospital costs -- were reached in secret.”
Current talks between the administration and Democratic leaders to reconcile House and Senate versions of the health bill have also been closed.
That’s led reporters to dog Gibbs with regularity. On Friday, CNN’s Ed Henry led the charge -- wondering why Obama’s talks with union leaders about cutting the tax on some health benefits couldn’t have been public.
Gibbs insisted he had answered that question before. But from what I can tell, the spokesman tends to talk in generalities about public access and avoid addressing the lack of television coverage.
Of his obvious distress at answering repeated questions about openness, one journalist parried: “We wouldn’t have to ask if it were on C-SPAN.” Another pointedly wanted to know if Obama’s “brand of being a new politician, a transparent politician” had been damaged.
Gibbs’ told the press corps the administration has not gotten enough credit for what has been made public, including lists of those who come to the White House to talk about healthcare and updates on significant developments. “We were going to do things differently,” the weary-looking spokesman said, “and we have.”
Lieberman is one of many journalists who thinks Obama should have done a lot more, not so much with live video of healthcare talks but with detailed briefings to help journalists keep the public up on developments.
Poorly informed by the administration, the press poorly informed the American people, which grew skeptical of reform, Lieberman contends.
Just before New Year’s, C-SPAN President Brian P. Lamb wrote a letter to legislative leaders, asking them to broadcast the final talks. But no one in power appears to want the 11th hour horse trading on live TV.
With midterms still 10 months away, our scholar president has the time to bring his public access grade up to snuff. But talking about open government is one thing. Working at it every day is quite another.
On the Media also runs on Fridays on A2.