Hail to the Chief — and to Transparency

The local news in the Portland area was dismal today (see sad saga of mayor Sam Adams, and the bloodletting at Intel).

But an article in the New York Times buoyed my spirits immensely (“On Day One, Obama Sets a New Tone“).

WASHINGTON — President Obama moved swiftly on Wednesday to impose new rules on government transparency and ethics, using his first full day in office to freeze the salaries of his senior aides, mandate new limits on lobbyists and demand that the government disclose more information.

“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” Mr. Obama said at a swearing-in ceremony for senior officials at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. He added, “Transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

(I’m a huge fan of transparency.)

The cynical among you can say, “Yes it sounds good, but it’s only his first day.” (Usually on my first day at a job, I’m happy if I can figure out how to get a cup of coffee and where to find the john.)

But what I like, what I really really like, is something later in the article:

The new president effectively reversed a post-9/11 Bush administration policy making it easier for government agencies to deny requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, and effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege in an effort to keep records secret.

“Starting today,” Mr. Obama said, “every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”

Yes, well, great, right? La di da.

Greater than you think. Here’s why: First, as the Times points out, he’s showing that “he is intent on keeping his promises to run a clean and open government.”

It may not be the type of thing that Mr. Bush wants to hear, however. Experts said Mr. Obama’s moves would have the practical effect of allowing reporters and historians to obtain access to records from the Bush administration that might otherwise have been kept under wraps.

Second, this is far more important than just some dirty laundry coming into the cold light of day, and might lead to a little post-facto  justice. Considering the number and magnitude of possible crimes committed by members of the Bush administration, I’ve been following the discussion about whether or not we need a reconciliation commission.

The political problem it poses for President Obama is that starting one makes him look vindictive, and risks polarizing Republicans. On the other hand, the public disgust with the US practices of torturing captives makes it risky to let bygones be bygones, too.

So what I’m wondering–in fact, what I’m hoping–is that Obama’s directive accomplishes a number of things at once: it holds his administration accountable; it lets historians and journalists examine the records of the Bush administration (which after all should be public, since we’re supposed to be a democracy); and finally, if the journos and academics find misdeeds, they essentially serve as a de facto reconciliation commission, and then Obama has every right to launch an official investigation without it looking like a witch hunt.

In other words, it’s putting democracy back on its feet. The intellectuals and the fourth estate do what they’re supposed to do, which is to help keep a government honest and accountable. The government listens to the voice of the people, instead of, say, the lobbyists.

I am so glad this man is now our president.

Photo by Callie Shell

Photo by Callie Shell

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