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'A Pretty Good Place to Start'

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 22, 2009; 1:00 PM

President Obama often spoke during the campaign about a new kind of politics. He promised a common-sense way of running the country that defied left-right stereotypes.

It wasn't always entirely clear what he meant by that.

But on his first full day in office yesterday, Obama offered a dramatic example of what he has in mind. History will record that Obama's first major official act was to set out a fundamentally different way of doing business with the American people: Namely, in the open.

"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable," Obama said. "And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served."

He then proceeded to sign a series of executive orders and memos that, as he said, "mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. . . .

"Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

Obama issued three memos: one establishes bold new rules regarding transparency and open government; another instructs executive-branch officials who enforce the Freedom of Information Actto err on the side of making materials public rather than looking for reasons to legally withhold them; and the third freezes pay of White House staffers making over $100,000. He also signed two executive orders: one establishing strict ethics rules for his political appointees and another making presidential records more accessible.

Obama is reversing not so much Bush-era policies as a Bush-era polarity.

And yet there is nothing overtly liberal or conservative about transparency and accountability -- it's just a good way to run the government. Incompetence, cronyism and corruption thrive in the darkness. Confident governments aren't afraid of people finding out what they've done, or how they've done it.

Washington in the Bush years became accustomed to the incredible secrecy under which the Bush White House operated. But it's hard to look back at the Bush legacy without recognizing disasters that might have been averted had more information been available to the public, and had dissent not been so assiduously suppressed.

Obama didn't just tear down walls of secrecy yesterday. He called on his administration to embrace modern technology to get out information and solicit public response.

"[T]hese steps are aimed at establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it, and to help restore that faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make," Obama said in his remarks.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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