24 January, 2009

End of Week One: Sea Change

I'll be honest with you: the night before Obama became the 44th President of the United States, I was preparing myself for pain. He'd tacked a bit too far center for my taste. There were disturbing signs he'd pander to Cons in the name of bipartisanship. And I fully expected most of those glorious campaign promises to go unfulfilled.

Day One, I thought, would see a sharp pulling back. I figured he'd use the economy as an excuse to sweep the thorny problems of Guantanamo and torture under the rug. Transparency would give way to opacity. And the expanded powers of the presidency bequeathed by Cheney and his minion Bush would prove too tempting to discard. We'd see a few empty gestures, and some decent work on economic issues, but not much else.

Well, this is one of those times when I've been thrilled to be wrong. Utterly, completely, gloriously wrong.

I can't even keep up with him. If he keeps up this pace, all of the abuses of the Bush years will be rolled back by next week, all of the major issues resolved by next year, and who the fuck knows what he'll find to do with the remaining three in his first term?

Yes, that's hyperbole. But after this week, perhaps I can be forgiven a little exaggeration. Let's just take a quick gander at some of the many highlights.

Ending the Ill-Conceived War on Terror

On his first day, Obama had a draft executive order circulating to close Guantanamo and called a halt to kangaroo trials. By Thursday, he'd taken a wrecking ball to Bush's blunders:
With a few strokes of a pen Thursday, President Obama undid years of policy that was the cornerstone of George W. Bush's "war on terror." He ordered the prison at Guantánamo to be shut down within a year, the detainees moved to other countries or to regular U.S. courts; forced the CIA to stop torturing people, to close secret "black sites" around the world and to follow the Army Field Manual rules on interrogations; and told the entire government to stop relying on legal opinions issued by the Bush administration to justify policies that were never justifiable except in the eyes of the people who hatched them up.
He'd also ordered the Red Cross have access to any and all detainees held by the U.S. government. And he'd signed an order ending extraordinary rendition. He's not stopping at rolling back Bush's abuses, but fixing Clinton's mistakes as well.

If anyone was looking for a clean break with the past, this is it.

Reproductive Rights and Global Health

Most politicians pussyfoot around Roe vs. Wade. Not Obama:

"On the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we are reminded that this decision not only protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, but stands for a broader principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose.

While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services.

On this anniversary, we must also recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights and opportunities as our sons: the chance to attain a world-class education; to have fulfilling careers in any industry; to be treated fairly and paid equally for their work; and to have no limits on their dreams. That is what I want for women everywhere."

It's the first time in my life I've heard a president come out this strongly for my rights. And at WhiteHouse.gov, it becomes even more clear he knows and understands the issues women face.

The day after Roe's anniversary, he lifted the global gag rule. The world will be a far healthier place for it.

White House Ethics and Transparency

On his first full day in office, Obama tightened ethics rules and froze pay* for those White House staffers making more than $100,000 a year.

But that stuff wasn't as breathtaking as the sweeping changes in transparency. You know it's serious when the White House press are the ones wanting to withhold information while the government wants to release it. Can we say sea change?

The most important thing Obama did was overturn Bush's records secrecy order. Talk about night and day:

Under Bush's order, former presidents had broad ability to claim executive privilege and could designate others including family members who survive them to exercise executive privilege on their behalf.

Obama's new order gives ex-presidents less leeway to withhold records, Aftergood said, and takes away the ability of presidents' survivors to designate that privilege.

Separately, an Obama memorandum issued Wednesday also appears to effectively rescind a 2001 memo by President Bush's then-Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft giving agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. This administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but with those who seek it to be known," Obama said before a gathering that included his senior staff. "The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

Under Obama, the Freedom of Information Act will mean that information is free:

According to Obama's memo: "All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA."


"The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and down by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."
And as if this isn't awesome enough, WhiteHouse.gov is now actually a site worth visiting. There's even a blog.

Science and Environment

The long war on science is finally over, and America is filled with happy scientists:

After some very frustrating years, it seems the scientific community finally has reason to celebrate. The New York Times reported today that many scientists are "exuberant" about Barack Obama becoming president, and staff members throughout the government's scientific agencies "reported being teary-eyed with joy."

"If you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces," said Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "It's not just getting money. It's his recognition of what science can do to bring this country back in an innovative way."

When a politician can make scientists cry for joy, you know science is going to do all right.

And, glory be, despite all the nattering about clean coal, Obama's EPA has already put the kibbosh on new coal plants, demanding they meet stringent standards before they're approved.

There's even scientific claims that Obama makes you smarter. The study's methods seem a little questionable, but that does not prevent me from enjoying its conclusions thoroughly.

Peace In Our Time

In his first moments in office, Obama rang up "the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to talk about next steps for peace." In his next few moments, he appointed George Mitchell to take care of bidness. I'll have more on this man later. For now, the key facts are that he's so even-handed that the extreme right-wing allies of Israel are in a blind panic, and he helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. I do believe Obama's serious about getting this peace thing right.

"No More Fake Optimism"

Naomi Wolf, reflecting on Obama's inauguration speech, captured the essence:

The great leaders in the US weren't the cheerleaders who promised ­morning in America. They were the ones that forced us to look in the mirror. Since Reagan there has been this tradition, which has become a cliche, of promising morning in America, this fake optimism, we're the best, the city on the hill.

In fact the great American task is self-scrutiny. Abraham Lincoln gave speeches about the civil war in which he said, in essence, "We've brought this on ourselves by enslaving Americans." Obama's speech was a diagnosis: "We have to take steps to rebuild our nation." I'm not saying, "Hooray, he offered a tough, dark recognition of our reality." I'm saying "Hooray" because he has recognised that the only way to save America is to confront it.

I think we can safely say he's doing just that. No more fake optimism. This is the real deal.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go lie down. The pace of change has been absolutely dizzying.

*I know, I know. But one waiver does not destroy the implications. I'll feel differently if this becomes a habit.

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