The White House's new press secretary is learning The Importance of Being Earnest — at least in the political sense.
Like the protagonists populating Oscar Wilde's farcical play, Obama administration mouthpiece Josh Earnest now must don a fictitious persona to escape the burdens of reality and spin the Obama image.
So far, Earnest has dutifully repeated the fraying line that President Obama remains the most transparent president in U.S. history, even as that talking point erodes amid the weight of presidential obfuscation.
"I have a responsibility in this job to try to help the president live up to his commitment to be the most transparent president in history," Earnest told CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday.
This, after a line of journalists ripped the president for limiting media access and spinning information.
Perhaps the biggest fissure in the Transparency Presidency myth is the Obama circle's "dark money" narrative.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling expanded the confines of political speech, the left has been on the warpath against politically active conservative groups organized under section 501(c) of the U.S. tax code, skewering organizations that chose not to disclose their donors.
Forget the fact that anonymous speech has been a core protection since the founding of the United States. Obama's front group, Organizing for Action, has been anything but crystal clear about its long list of left-bending, wealthy donors.
An analysis of OFA's donor list by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation shows, since the beginning of the 2014 election cycle, 14 donors have written checks of $100,000 or more to the "social welfare" organization that bears Barack Obama's name on its website address.
Tracking the players, however, was no easy feat. It took additional technical and reporting work by the campaign finance watchdogs to "fully background the donors that OFA identified only by name and home town," according to the report.
"The information OFA chooses to provide about its contributors falls far short of what the Federal Election Commission requires of campaign committees," the report states. "Among the key missing details: contributors' employment information, which helps the public identify the interests behind a politician."
Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, called OFA's "disclosure" of donor names "half-baked." She said Organizing for Action has made a concession to the president, in keeping with his transparency image, to disclose, but the liberal group is a long way from daylight.
"You would think, given how outspoken President Obama has been on 'dark money,' and that [OFA] grew out of his campaign, that they would go not just a mile but an extra couple of miles to give information that a campaign committee would give to the (Federal Election Commission)," Kiely said.
"They are showing just a little ankle so they can claim transparency."
Organizing for Action, despite its very public support of the Obama legislative agenda, has adamantly declared it is not a political organization.
One of the worst-kept secrets in politics, to the peril of Obama's transparency image, is that OFA is a "dark money" organization.
Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), says OFA is disclosing more than it has to under law, and certainly more than many 501(c) organizations do. But simply releasing names of donors makes it very difficult to track precisely who is paying the tab, Novak said.
CRP and the Sunlight Foundation report finding the donor list on OFA's website is a challenge. And the information has, at times, disappeared.
"When we went through the above process two weeks ago, the link to the donor page produced an error message," the report states. "After several emails to OFA, the information reappeared on the page. The episode illustrates the capriciousness of 'voluntary' disclosure. What is given can easily be taken away."
OFA did not return Watchdog.org's request for comment.
Kiely said the organization did not return multiple requests for comment from the Sunlight Foundation.
None of what "dark money" OFA is doing is illegal. Watchdog.org's parent organization, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, as a policy, does not disclose its donor list. So do many other organizations on the right and the left.
CRP and the Sunlight Foundation are opposed to such practices, asserting that voters have the right to know whether donors are influencing the political process.
The issue with OFA, and the man it advocates for, is the hypocrisy involved.
Asked, "What does the White House have to say about OFA's lack of transparency in light of the whole 'dark money' debate?" a White House spokesman advised Watchdog.org to take it up with OFA.
"The biggest hypocrite on the campaign finance issue is Barack Obama," said campaign finance law expert Hans von Spakovsky. "He has led the charge in speech after speech about 'dark money,' yet OFA is one of the biggest recipients of 'dark money.'"
Von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and a former member of the Federal Election Commission, said Obama set the pace for campaign finance hypocrisy in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Then-candidate Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, spoke early and often about the urgent need for campaign finance reform, on his way to becoming the first presidential candidate in a general election to refuse public campaign financing since the inception of the post-Watergate finance system.
"In essence, Obama broke the public funding system," von Spakovsky said.
Obama's Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain of Arizona — of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform — stood by public financing and lost badly in the 2008 election.
The Republicans didn't make that mistake again.
"You will never again have any presidential candidate of one of the two major parties accept public financing," von Spakovsky said. "The system is broken even though the law is still there."
For now, OFA's voluntary disclosure comes with "half-measures that are not empowering the public to connect the dots and see the whole picture," Kiely said.
"We at the Sunlight Foundation are just trying to help the president fulfill his pledge of transparency, to get the job done for Organizing for Action," she said, chuckling. "We don't mind doing all of this work, but we think they can do it themselves.
"To quote the president, 'Yes, they can.'"
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