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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson July 1, 2010

Obama flip-flops on use of presidential commissions

During a campaign appearance in Grand Junction, Colo., on Sept. 17, 2008, Barack Obama made light of his rival, John McCain, for suggesting that a commission study the Wall Street meltdown that had just taken place.

"John McCain's big solution to the crisis we're facing is -- get ready for this -- a commission," Obama told the crowd. "A commission. That's Washington-speak for we'll get -- we'll get back to you later."

Obama continued, "You know, folks, we don't need a commission to figure out what happened. We know what happened: Too many in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store. CEOs got greedy. Lobbyists got their way. Politicians sat on their hands until it was too late. We don't need a commission to tell us how we got into this mess, we need a president who will lead us out of this mess, and that's the kind of president I intend to be."

So what kind of president did Obama become? A president who has established at least four commissions.

First, some background. Commissions are typically headed jointly by a Republican and a Democrat. Members may be appointed by the president, Congressional leaders or a mix of the two. The commissions -- sometimes known as blue-ribbon panels -- are charged with studying a thorny topic and making recommendations. Usually the recommendations are not binding, but they can serve as blueprints for future Congressional and presidential action.

Sometimes commissions make an impact, such as the bipartisan panel that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its recommendations, after some delay, were made into law. Other times, commissions produce reports that get put on a shelf and are quickly forgotten. Some in Washington, such as candidate Obama, dismiss commissions as a way to make it look like you’re making progress in attacking a difficult problem without actually doing the heavy lifting of trying to pass a bill.

Experts say that critics of commissions have a point.

How useful a commission is "varies widely with the quality of leadership, the amount of funding and the commitment of the staff," said Paul Light, a New York University professor who is currently studying commissions for the Governance Institute. "Some are serious, and some are designed to distract the public and move an issue out of the headlines."

Whatever their value, Light added, the number of commissions has climbed over the years. "I suspect (Obama) will end up with 16 to 20 of them if he wins a second term," he said.

Obama's commissions aren't on trivial subjects. Here are the ones we were able to locate:

The BP oil spill. On May 22, 2010, Obama signed an order establishing the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The panel is "tasked with providing recommendations on how we can prevent – and mitigate the impact of – any future spills that result from offshore drilling," according to the White House. Obama named former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly to co-chair the commission.

The national debt. On Feb. 18, 2010, Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission’s co-chairs – former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senate Republican Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming – were asked to "bring Republicans and Democrats together" to tackle the nation's "looming fiscal challenges."

Nuclear energy policy. On Jan. 29, 2010, Obama asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to form a "Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future." The panel would "conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."

Bioethics. On Nov. 24, 2009, Obama established a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, chaired by University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and vice-chaired by Emory University president James W. Wagner. The commission will "advise the president on bioethical issues that may emerge from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology."

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The White House declined to comment for this story.

To be fair, establishing a commission does not necessarily mean that the administration has taken a pass on these issues. Obviously, the White House is deeply involved on many fronts in tackling the oil spill, from directing the cleanup to pushing legislation through Congress. And on the deficit, the administration has implemented a three-year, non-defense, discretionary spending freeze in this year’s budget, as well as signed a deficit-neutral, pay-as-you-go budget bill. (Not everyone is convinced that these measures will reduce the deficit significantly, however.)

Still, we think it’s worth pointing out Obama’s change in stance, since his initial comment was a calculated, pointed barb at McCain and because he’s turned to the commission model as president to address more than just minor issues. Ultimately, on the use of presidentially appointed commissions, Obama merits a Full Flop.

Our Sources

Barack Obama, remarks at a campaign stop in Grand Junction, Colo., Sept. 17, 2008 (accessed via Lexis-Nexis)

White House, “Welcoming the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” (blog post), Feb 18, 2010

White House, “Weekly Address: President Obama Establishes Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling” (news release), May 22, 2010

White House, “Presidential Memorandum -- Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future” (news release), Jan 29, 2010

White House, “President Obama Establishes New Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Names Commission Leadership” (news release), Nov. 24, 2009

National Public Radio, "Once A Critic, Obama Now Embraces Commissions," June 30, 2010

Interview with Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University, July 1, 2010

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