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The President’s Second Term and the Accountability Conundrum

Monday, January 21, 2013


President Obama is about to get to work on his second term in office, and as we reflect on his first four years as our president, I’m positive that many – sometimes extreme – mixed emotions and sentiments ensue, depending on your perspective and values. One thing that comes to mind when thinking about his 2008 presidential campaign is his call for government transparency, accessibility, and public accountability.

Beyond the vision for hope and change

Beyond the vision for hope and change, “hold me accountable,” became a sort of default motto of his. With 2008 being just my second election as an eligible voter, I was so galvanized by this call, as if he was reaching out to me personally. The idea that anyone could engage her or his government to act on an idea, or whatever makes a heart tick, was so empowering to 20-year-old me. In fact, it’s a still a message I strive to pass along.

Even further, bolstering his theme on accountability, he also pledged an extremely transparent administration by placing key negotiations on C-SPAN, particularly on health care. To the president’s credit, he did allow a “health care summit” on C-SPAN after heavy scrutiny, but what we saw was only a dog and pony show. Of course, elected officials will never have meaningful and honest dialogue on substance of anything if the American people are watching.

However, call me naïve, but I expected more out of President Obama’s administration on the open government front. He does claim to have the most transparent administration ever (A quick Google search of, “Obama most transparent administration,” will deliver plenty of fodder). But what does that mean?

Many in the media continue to complain about the administration’s performance on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Some say that it’s the worst administration they’ve experienced on FOIA issues. On the other hand, the White House provides access to records and data that it deems permissible via Ethics.gov and Data.gov (place emphasis on the phrase, “that it deems permissible”). If you’re savvy enough, you can solicit a White House response to your issue by filing a petition on the website, petitions.whitehouse.gov. At one time, they obligated themselves to respond to your petition if you had 30,000 signatures but, as of this week, they have upped the ante to 100,000. Online petitions via their website could rightfully be perceived as frivolous, but I always considered it as a cool opportunity to demand a response to important issues. To their credit though, the White House continues to reflect on its own open government commitments and has laid out a progress report, which can be accessed here.

As President Obama moves forward to his second term, he continues his message of encouragement to get more US citizens engaged with their government. Since his reelection, I’ve heard him, more than once, talk about citizen collaboration, and the need to hold him and Congress accountable. Naturally, he’d prefer that the attention be focused on Congress. In times that others have held him to his word and a challenge has been posed to him, we’ve seen him slip over his smoothness.


So what can we do to hold our government accountable? There are a myriad of challenges to keeping government accountable to the people. And because transparency is the lynchpin to accountability, we could begin by demanding an open political and government process. We can’t hold people accountable for their actions, if we don’t know what they did. If you had grievances of your own, some would tell you to run for office, which does put elected officials’ feet to the fire. I personally would probably tell you to call or write your officials, or better yet, organize your friends, neighbors, and colleagues to do the same. I’m a grassroots organizer by trade (many of you will laugh all you want; go for it; organizing is a good thing), and a popular phrase we use is, “Don’t mourn, organize.” However, none of these solutions takes into account those who simply don’t have much time to stay on top of fast-moving issues, and keep government open – those who work long hours in the day, have families, are buried in personal and family obligations, and are trying to make ends meet.

I remember the night President Obama won reelection, and I posted a Facebook status encouraging everyone to keep the administration accountable for its actions on our issues. And a friend reminded me that it’s a hard thing to do when feeding a family and sorting through many priorities. That’s a moment that struck me as a challenge.

So I’d like to pose this challenge to all of you reading. Take a short moment to think about whether or not you feel as though you have ample opportunity to access government. Are you able to stay on top of the issues? Are you accessing the right sources for information? Are you willing and able? Do you engage the government with your issues, and how are they received? And most importantly, what are some solutions to engaging anyone in the political process?

As we look on to his second term, it’s going to be critical to hold the president accountable on his commitment to accountability. And that will fall on all of us. There will be strong and bitter disagreements among us, for sure. But Mr. President, will you keep your end of the bargain.

Michael Roles engages communities through various environmental, green economy, and social equity initiatives as an organizer and trainer. 




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