Obama Delicately Assaults Romney Over Transparency

PHOTO: Barack Obama and Mitt RomneyChris OMeara/AP Photo|Steven Senne/AP Photo
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are shown in these April 2012 photos.

President Obama is withdrawing from one war, the war over women, but he is escalating another: the war over transparency.

Obama's reelection team was out in full force Monday to put pressure on Mitt Romney over what Democrats say is a history of secrecy, in both his personal life and his political ambitions. They organized press conferences and seized on reports from Sunday in which Romney was overheard disclosing new details of his policies to rich donors to his campaign.

But just as an aggressive effort to court women voters backfired, the Obama camp's attention on transparency is open to backlash, too. Open-government advocates have long criticized Obama for what they say is a failure to live up to his campaign promise to truly change the practices of the executive branch.

"The White House is an example of a glass-half-full, half-empty when it comes to transparency," said Gary Bass, the former director of a government watchdog group that presented Obama with an openness award in a private ceremony last year.

Both sides in the fray have plenty of gunpowder.

Democrats laid out their hand on Monday, calling on Romney to release his tax returns going back several years; disclose the top money "bundlers" to his campaign; detail his overseas investments; explain the deleted emails and missing hard drives from his time as governor of Massachusetts; and, thanks to reporters eavesdropping on a private fundraising event on Sunday, elaborate on why he told top donors that as president he would consider cutting federal agencies for education and housing.

The Obama campaign called Romney's disclosures "secret cuts" to the departments of education and housing and urban development.

"Americans have always expected to be able to review a presidential candidate's records and plans, the opportunity to lift up the hood and kick the tires," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.

The campaign also organized regional press conferences. Surrogates in Philadelphia and Boston demanded that Romney release his tax returns. Democrats from New York hopped on a conference call to lambast Romney's "penchant for secrecy." On that call, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Romney has "made a disturbing habit of hiding information from the voters."

Republicans fired their cannons, too, but their counterattack was on Capitol Hill, not Romney's campaign.

The GOP's top watchdog on the Hill, Darrell Issa, spent the afternoon grilling members of the General Services Administration over an inspector general's report that detailed waste at a Las Vegas conference and led to the resignation of the agency's administrator. Issa has already charged that the Obama administration knew about the improper use of taxpayer money but "didn't act until the press got wind of it."

"This is typically what has been happening in this administration," Issa said this month. "They are only transparent when they are discovered."

The GSA official at the heart of organizing the conference, Jeff Neely, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination Monday and declined to answer questions.

In response, the Republican National Committee bookmarked Neely's refusal to answer the questions and asked in an email to the press, "How Many Times Will Those Involved in Obama Administration Scandals Refuse to Answer Questions?"

The RNC also noted that executives at the failed energy company Solyndra refused to answer questions at a separate hearing, as did a Justice Department official during a hearing on the Fast and Furious gun operation.

Mike Kelly, a freshman Republican congressman on the committee questioning the GSA, mocked the administration for preaching a "clear and transparent government."

"It is an absolute shame to have to sit here ... and watch as we take the Fifth -- OK, fine, that's your constitutional right -- not sure, cloudy, murky," Kelly said in an angry tirade. "It's pathetic, and I can't tell you how disappointed I am."

On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee compiled its best stuff into a video, prompting Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul to respond: "It's ironic that a White House that refuses to talk about Solyndra and pleads the 5th Amendment on President Obama's scandal-plagued GSA would accuse anyone of not being forthcoming."

Congressional Republicans -- and Romney -- have also hounded Obama for telling Russia's president in a much-repeated "hot mic" moment that he would have more "flexibility" after being reelected. The GOP has interpreted that publicly as a warning that Obama could run amok in a second term without worrying about reelection.

Critics and even supporters of the White House say the administration has a way to go before it comes close to matching Obama's 2008 campaign rhetoric, in which he pledged to bring about a new era of government transparency.

They say he can cut back on classifying documents, respond to more requests under the Freedom of Information Act, publicize with whom officials are meeting across all agencies, and shed light on access that lobbyists and campaign donors have in the White House.

A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, pointed to reports that say the administration has increased the rate in which it acts on FOIA requests, and he noted that a new government website, ethics.gov, lets the public search databases of White House visitors, travel reports, lobbying data and more.

"Over the past three years, Federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, and to solicit public participation in government decision-making and thus tap the expertise that resides outside of government," Schultz said in a statement.

Transparency advocates say they hope the budding feud between Obama and Romney is sustained so that whoever is president in 2013 can be held to the promises they make on the stump this year.

"We certainly hope that any candidate for the presidency would recognize that in terms of open government, more, not less, will make you more electable and will certainly improve our democracy," said Angela Canterbury, the policy director at the Project on Government Oversight. "Transparency in the candidacy should be an indication of what kind of transparency we might see in an administration."

She added, "In terms of the issue of open government, I think Mitt Romney has a lot of catch-up work to do."