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.
"The executive orders and directives I'm issuing today will not by themselves make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be. And they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington. But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come. That's a pretty good place to start."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Coupled with Tuesday's Inaugural Address, which repudiated the Bush administration's decisions on everything from science policy to fighting terrorism, the actions were another sign of the new president's effort to emphasize an across-the-board shift in priorities, values and tone. . . .
"A president's first act in office carries great symbolism. Aides to Mr. Obama spent weeks debating a variety of options. . . .
"In the end, Mr. Obama used his first day to send two messages that echoed themes from his campaign: first, that he is intent on keeping his promises to run a clean and open government; and, second, that he understands the pain Americans are feeling as a result of the economic crisis."
Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons write in the Los Angeles Times: "'This is big,' said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University that has challenged Bush administration policies on the release of information. 'No president has done so much on the first day in office to make his administration transparent.'"
Dan Eggen and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "New lobbying and records rules issued by President Obama yesterday appear to go beyond changes implemented by previous presidents, and could usher in an era of openness in federal government, according to ethics experts and open-government advocates. "
But be warned: They're making exceptions already. Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that two Obama appointments appear to run foul of the new rule that any lobbyists who get a job across his administration may not work on matters that they lobbied on and cannot even work in any agency they lobbied over the past years.
"William Corr, nominated for deputy secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, is listed in House and Senate records last year as having lobbied the agency, among other entities, on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"And William J. Lynn III, Obama's choice for the No. 2 at the Defense Department, was listed as a top lobbyist at the Pentagon for Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor.
"'Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions,' White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. 'Our waiver provisions are designed to allow uniquely qualified individuals like Bill Corr and Bill Lynn to serve the public interest in these critical times.'"
Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press that Obama's move comes as "the latest in a three-decade-long pingpong game with FOIA policy.
"In the late 1970s, Carter's attorney general, Griffin Bell, issued guidance to err on the side of releasing information. Under Reagan, William French Smith came in and reversed that; he told them, 'when in doubt withhold.' Then under Clinton, Janet Reno reversed it again; she told agencies their presumption should be for release.
"But Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft went back the other way in October 2001, telling agencies he would defend any legal justification for withholding documents. . . .
"Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, praised Obama's move after many years in which government 'has worked at restricting the flow of information to Americans, bypassing the First Amendment.'
"'This step toward providing more access and making our government agencies more accountable can help build the people's confidence in government,' he said."
Abdon M. Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun-Times about the reaction from open-government advocates: "'Hot damn! This is astonishing. And wonderful,' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 'You know there's a new sheriff in town. . . .
"'We had meeting after meeting with Obama's transition team, and I told them, in my dream world, Obama would get up there on Inauguration Day and say, "Transparency will be the watchword of this administration,"' Dalglish said. 'I'm speechless. I am dreaming, right?'"
David Corn blogs for CQ: "[W]hile FOIA may seem a boutique issue to some, it represents a basic attitude adjustment. . . . Arrogant leaders abuse secrecy, believing they know best. With this order, Obama is sending the message that he has a different--and more democratic--view of the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed."
Ryan Powers reports for Thinkprogress.org on the reaction from right-wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh, who had this to say: "What I'm afraid of is that what Obama did with this executive order is actually make it easier for the media to go get Bush documents. Because you know Pelosi and some of the guys over in congress are talking about war crimes trials and charges and so forth."And Then, on the Second Day
This just in: We don't torture anymore.
Obama this morning signed three more executive orders, one requiring the closure of the prison at Guantanamo within a year, the second definitively banning torture and the third establishing a task force on interrogation and detainee policy. He also signed a memo requesting a review of the status of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a legal resident who is currently held in a naval brig.
The first order, in addition to requiring the closure of the prison, calls for an immediate case-by-case review of the 245 detainees remaining there and a halt to the military commissions process.
The second order ensures that any interrogations of people detained by the United States will abide by the Army Field Manual, which currently covers military interrogations.
"We believe that the Army Field Manual reflects the best judgment of our military, that we can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively attain the intelligence that we need," Obama said.
"This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."
The order also requires all departments and agencies to provide the International Committee of the Red Cross access to detainees, and it orders the Central Intelligence Agency to close all existing detention facilities and prohibits the CIA from operating detention facilities in the future.
Obama continued: "With those three executive orders and this memorandum the message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly; we are going to do so effectively; and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals. . . .
"We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world.
"We intend to win this fights. We're going to win it on our terms."
Much more on this tomorrow.Middle East Watch
Mark Landler writes in the New York Times: "President Obama moved swiftly to engage on the Middle East on Wednesday, calling Israeli and Arab leaders on his first morning in office and preparing to appoint a seasoned peace negotiator and former senator, George J. Mitchell, as his special emissary to the region. . . .
"In calls to leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Israel, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Obama said he would work to solidify the cease-fire in Gaza and pledged 'his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term,' said his spokesman, Robert Gibbs."
But as Steven Erlanger writes in the New York Times: "With the rule of Hamas in Gaza apparently unchallenged and its popularity growing in the West Bank, the new Obama administration faces an immediate policy choice: support a Palestinian unity government, as Egypt and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, want, or continue to isolate Hamas and concentrate on building up the West Bank as a political alternative to radical Islam."Brain Trust Watch
As Jeff Zeleny wrote in the New York Times last week: "Among the top members of the staff, David Axelrod, a senior adviser, will occupy the space closest to the Oval Office, in a nook, positioned directly outside the president's private dining room, where Mr. Obama can poke his head through the door at any moment. It is the office occupied by George Stephanopoulos when Bill Clinton was president.
"Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff, worked out of that same office for a time under Mr. Clinton. Mr. Emanuel will now have a larger office just down the hall, a corner spot that has long been used by people serving in his position. And Pete Rouse, who was chief of staff to Mr. Obama in the Senate and will work as a senior adviser in the White House, will be between Mr. Axelrod and Mr. Emanuel. . . .
"Like presidents before him, Mr. Obama will give offices on the first floor of the West Wing to the vice president, the national security adviser and the press secretary. The White House counsel, the director of the National Economic Council and the director of domestic policy will all be on the West Wing's second floor.
"Valerie Jarrett, another senior adviser to the president, will be in a second-floor office with windows that look over the South grounds of the White House, the office that Hillary Rodham Clinton once used. The communications director, who once occupied a spot on the second floor, will be moved down a floor to smaller quarters outside the office of Robert Gibbs, the press secretary."Quick Takes
Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic that Obama is apparently going to be able to keep some sort of super-encrypted BlackBerry-like device.
Susan Page writes for USA Today: "By nearly 6-1, those surveyed Tuesday in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll say Obama's inauguration has made them feel more hopeful about the next four years, a far more positive response than the one President Bush's swearing-in prompted in 2005."
Karl Rove complains in a Wall Street Journal opinion column that "as Mr. Bush left Washington, in a last angry frenzy his critics again distorted his record, maligned his character and repeated untruths about his years in the Oval Office." Rove concludes that "despite facing challenges and crises few others have, the job did not break George W. Bush. Though older and grayer, his brows more furrowed, he is the same man he was, a person of integrity who did what he believed was right. And he exits knowing he summoned all of his energy and talents to defend America and advance its ideals at home and abroad. He didn't get everything right -- no president does -- but he got the most important things right. And that is enough."
Stephen F. Hayes writes in the Weekly Standard that former vice president Dick Cheney is not happy with his former boss. "Cheney told the Weekly Standard that his former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, whom he described as a 'victim of a serious miscarriage of justice,' deserved a presidential pardon."
David Bauder writes for the Associated Press: "Three news agencies refused to distribute White House-provided photos of President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday, arguing that access should have been provided to news photographers."
CNN reports: "In the Bush administration, it was a rule: Jackets in the Oval Office -- and now, it seems, one of the first Bush-era regulations to get scrapped in the Obama White House."
And Ed O'Keefe blogs for washingtonpost.com that framed photographs of Obama and Vice President Biden may not adorn the lobbies of federal buildings until March, but that in the meantime: "As for those portraits of Bush and Cheney, GSA instructed staff on Tuesday that they 'should be removed and respectfully disposed' at noon."Whitehouse.gov Watch
It looks like Obama's technology team has hit a few roadblocks.
Anne E. Kornblut writes in The Washington Post: "Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.
"What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking. . . .
"By late evening, the vaunted new White House Web site did not offer any updated posts about President Obama's busy first day on the job. . . .
"No one could quite explain the problem -- but they swore it would be fixed."Honeymoon Watch
Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz asks this morning, apparently quite seriously: "It is well past time to ask the question: What has Barack Obama really accomplished as president, anyway? . . . How long are we supposed to wait for the change we've been waiting for?"Cartoon Watch
Ann Telnaes on shredding the Bush legacy, Gary Markstein on restoring the Constitution, Scott Sherffius on Obama's first official act, Kevin Siers and Tom Toles on the botched oath, and Walt Handelsman, Scott Stantis, RJ Matson, Nate Beeler, Steve Kelley, Ed Stein, Mike Luckovich, and Dan Wasserman on what awaits Obama.