Obama’s New Toy

Snazzy new technology isn’t enough to bring transparency to the White House.

Barack Obama’s Web site

This morning I received an e-mail from the Obama transition team that the president-elect will be recording his weekly radio address not just on audio but also on video. I was planning to file this information in its proper place, in the same folder with pool reports about Obama’s morning workouts (between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m. every day, a combination of cardio and weights, usually showers at home). But then I actually read the e-mail and found that this wasn’t an announcement to be dismissed lightly: “No President-elect or President has ever turned the radio address into a multi-media opportunity before. This is just one of many ways that President-elect Obama will communicate directly with the American people and make the White House and the political process more transparent.” An article included in the release called the move the 21st-century equivalent of FDR’s fireside chats.

My first reaction was jealousy. It’s our job in the media to hype technological whiz-bang gizmos as substantive innovations when they’re not. (If you don’t agree, take it up with my hologram.) Next I assumed it was typical overenthusiastic press-release copy, which is an eminently forgivable sin.

But then I read some of the copious coverage about how Obama is going to use his campaign’s technological prowess as a governing tool. And I thought, especially since we’re all still getting to know each other in this new administration, it was worth asking how much this “innovation” will increase transparency. My answer: not much. 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.

First, according to aides at the Bush White House, Obama will not be the first president to have “turned the radio address into a multi-media opportunity.” According to aides, Bush has filmed his radio address about six times (though he hasn’t gone to YouTube as the State Department has and as Obama plans to). That this fact is not well-known gives us some sense of how big a deal it is to make a video of the radio address, which is to say, it’s not that big a deal at all.

Defining transparency is hard because the term is used so much and is misapplied. I like to think of transparency as Obama has defined it over his career, which is essentially letting civilians have access to the raw data of politics and policy. He sponsored legislation to create Google for Government so that people could see how their tax dollars were being spent. He has suggested C-SPAN film his deliberations on health care and other policy (an idea he’s likely to drop), and he’s let some light shine on the people who raise money for him so that voters can tell whether he’s being unduly influenced. The photographs of him from election night posted on Flickr are even a kind of transparency; we were let inside his world in an intimate way (made all the more effective because he came to a universal space where people share their personal photographs rather than making people come to his Web site). Yes, it was a kind of manipulation, but it was mostly harmless, and in the exchange we got a window into history.

The radio address, by contrast, is essentially a weekly White House press release. It is not an exercise in transparency. Ronald Reagan started the regular addresses because he knew the power of the radio to deliver a message. Obama’s video address is a prettier tool for delivering talking points—but that’s all it is. It may be even less transparent, as the video tends to distract from the content.

Even FDR’s fireside chats aren’t a perfectly apt model of transparency. In the first one, FDR wasn’t letting the American people in on the process. He was explaining to them what had already been done. That was useful and effective but not an act of transparency the way Obama has described it, or at least not an act of transparency of the kind for which Obama wants credit.

If the Obama team wants to use this tool, great. And he should use all the other innovative tools he perfected during his campaign to press his agenda and rally his supporters. But let’s not claim it’s an advance in transparency. Obama shouldn’t get credit for transparency, which is hard and bold, when he’s merely harnessing new technology for his self-interest.

During the campaign Obama was transparent—but only up to a point. Unlike previous candidates, he released the names of fundraisers who raised big chunks of bundled donations, a move not required by law. But he stopped short of declaring the precise amounts and affiliations. When it came to releasing the names of his small-dollar donors, his campaign used technology as an excuse rather than as a tool to increase transparency. One of the big acts of technological transparency during his campaign was inadvertent, when it was discovered that his Web site language had been changed to remove criticism of the troop surge in Iraq.

Personally, Obama has grown more opaque about his thoughts. As a journalist I get vertigo thinking about how great it would be to hear Obama talk as openly and honestly about his views as he did in this 2004 interview about his religion that was released this week. That he no longer talks this freely is undoubtedly part of the reason he won. I don’t see any sign that he’s going to change his behavior, and I’m not sure he should. If the press is going to sound-bite a president to death, why should he open up too much?

Obama will show he is transparent not by delivering his message in some new way but by conveying actual information. He’s got to tell the truth, yes, but he’s also got to have something to say. His most powerful statements during the campaign were not conveyed through an Ethernet cable but from a stage, alone, with a microphone, the way it has been done for 100 years. If the promise of transparency and candor never arrives but the hype continues, his campaign will have produced the political equivalent of vaporware.