Re-Do It, Mr. President-elect: "Open for Questions" Gets an F
By Al Giordano
"We live in an era of non-response."
- Jacques Ellul
It started out as a brilliant idea and fulfillment of President-elect Obama's pledge to make government more open and transparent.
But it turned out to be a cruel joke on Obama's own supporters.
Obama's Change.Gov transition team website offered citizens the chance to ask questions, any question, about public policy. It gave them the opportunity to vote other people's questions to the top of the list and to flag others as "inappropriate." How cool was that? It was a pioneering moment in governors relating to the governed. Or so it seemed...
The Obama team claimed to be impressed by and grateful for the wide participation:
Last week, our Open for Questions feature was particularly well-received: more than 20,000 people cast nearly 1,000,000 votes on questions posed by the community. Overall, just over 10,000 questions were voted up or down and ranked by visitors to the site.
The result is a snapshot of the issues you're concerned about as the pieces for the next administration move into place.
Many of the top questions raised legitimate policy issues often ignored (or reported badly) by the mass media but clearly of importance to thousands of Americans. After the questioning and balloting closed last Thursday at midnight, we noticed that six of the top 20 questions (indeed, 31 of the top 100) were on matters of drug policy. A wonderful opportunity was presented to the President-elect to reiterate and expand upon positions taken during his campaign and to address new ones from the perspective of governing.
It was clear that some of the questioners would - if Obama reiterated his campaign positions - be disappointed in some of the answers (everybody knows he never promised to "legalize marijuana" during the campaign), but on others they would be heartened to hear him state, as President-elect, with greater specificity how he intended to make good on campaign promises to reform other drug policies.
And this was to be itself a fulfillment of one of his biggest most oft-stated pledges: to make government (and his transition to it) "the most transparent and open in history."
Even on areas where Obama might disagree with his base, there was a precedent set during the campaign when he expressed his reasons for his disagreement, as when last July 3 he responded forthrightly to thousands of opponents of the FISA wiretapping bill on his campaign website. It began:
I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to those of you who oppose my decision to support the FISA compromise...
And in nine thoughtful paragraphs he offered disagreement with respect and with his argument for his differing view.
That kind of sincere and detailed response to the citizenry, frankly, is what he promised to do throughout his campaign should he be elected.
And that, just as frankly, is the kind of response his base expected to his "Open for Questions" process.
Instead, we were served gimmickry, sloganeering, curt and almost snide "responses" that were disrespectful of the thousands of people who, after all, took time from their daily lives to participate in the invited forum (helping Obama govern by answering such invitations is another form of volunteering - but ask any of his field organizers about the wisdom of "burning" volunteers if you want them back again.)
The Obama staff bothered to answer just five questions: two of them in a sentence apiece, none of them in more than a single paragraph.
To just one of the top questions on drug policy - the one on legalizing marijuana - the response came without argument:
Q: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?" S. Man, Denton
A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.
Big whoop. Wow, those Transition policy and website staffers really had to do some heavy lifting to craft that original phrase! Where did they come up with such fine policy prose? (Maybe they got the rocket-scientist-cum-energy-secretary to pen that one?)
The five other drug policy questions among the top 20 were totally ignored, yet they were closer to the line of scrimmage on Obama's own stated campaign positions. Here's a summary of those questions:
- Will the federal government stop raiding and prosecuting medical marijuana users and their doctors?
- If not legalization, what about decriminalization?
(After all, on November 4, voters in Michigan and Massachusetts voted for exactly that; the context of the issue - and "conventional wisdom" about public opinion on it - has shifted somewhat since Election Day.)
- What about prioritizing treatment over incarceration for drug offenders?
- How do we fix the prison system?
- And what about the Food and Drug Administration's cozy relationship - the freedom from liability and the protective legislation previously given - with the pharmaceutical industry?
Those were the more interesting top drug policy questions that deserved a sincere and transparent response. Instead, they were ignored in favor of picking the question to which he could give a typical politician's "blow off" response.
We know from previous statements by Obama on the campaign trail that he has more detailed and nuanced answers to some of those questions. Take this talk of his from September 2007, in New Hampshire, for example:
And so the "Open for Questions" feature at the Change.Gov website proved to be an insulting mockery of the 20,000 members of his base that crafted 10,000 questions and voted them up or down.
The Transition Team says it is looking forward to "round two." But who in their right minds would continue to participate in a process that in the first round proved insulting and fraudulent and completely out of sync with the tone and pledges of a more open and transparent government?
On this, Mr. President-elect - and from one that has defended you and even some of your appointments that didn't make me cheer on the basis that the governance hasn't begun yet - you and your staff get an "F."
Those non-responses, being part of a transition, were part of governing, and if this is what you had in mind for your "most open and transparent" communication with the people, lord, that mocking tone your staff took toward the participants will shortly after Inauguration Day boomerang and be returned in kind from one million and more strong, and deservedly so.
Go back, Mr. President-elect, and re-do your answers to the top 20 questions: instruct your staff to stop ridiculing your supporters and give them concrete and thoughtful answers and arguments on the first round of questions before asking us to participate in Round Two.
Round One is now an open sore, and an unanswered charade.