First Acts: Obama Launches New Direction for US


The first official acts of President Barack Obama highlight the 180-degree from Bush policies and philosophy his administration has already begun to take.

On his first day, Obama consulted with top military leaders and advisors how to begin the process of withdrawal from Iraq. He intervened in the Middle East conflict to bring the sides together, re-open talks, and emphasized his goal for a permanent settlement. He also named George Mitchell, well-known for his role in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, as special Middle East envoy.

On day one, Obama ordered a delay in the military trials of Guantanamo detainees, and the following day ordered the closure of the prison camps there within one year.

In terms of ideas, Obama dismissed the ultra-right ideology of free-market fundamentalism and the strangling of the government. In his inaugural he said the judge of a good government would be based on how well it helps working families live better lives. Rejecting Bush's 'ownership society' with its narrow corporate interests, Obama celebrated working families as the backbone of the nation and emphasized that his economic policy should include careful oversight, efficiency and benefits for all.

He set a new tone in foreign policy. After a two-year campaign in which he called for increasing military action in Afghanistan, Obama pledged to 'seek a hard-won peace' there, creating an opening for peace activists to agitate around.

He reached out to all governments openly, and told hostile governments that if they would 'unclench their fist,' he would extend an open hand.

Another somewhat overlooked action Obama took immediately as presidential power transferred to him was his proclamation of a national day of renewal and reconciliation for Jan. 20th. After eight years under a president who sought to divide Americans by race and nationality, religion and sexual orientation and on the basis of personal loyalty to him and who defined patriotism as consumerism, Obama's proclamation established the basis for a new philosophy of service, sacrifice and reconciliation.

'On this Inauguration Day,' President Obama wrote, 'we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright – it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.'

On his second day as president, Obama also ordered a new openness in government that reversed Bush administration policy that resisted allowing the people to really understand what it was doing.

Up to his last day in office, Bush fought legal challenges that demanded his administration turn over its electronic records to the National Archives and Records Administration which by law oversees safe-keeping of presidential records for historical purposes. In addition, Bush long ago ordered various agencies and departments to as much as possible to block legitimate requests for access to declassified material through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Within 36 hours of the termination of Bush's presidency, Obama ordered that '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.'

The order put forward the 'a presumption of disclosure for government records and a hostility to the use of secrecy laws to cover up embarrassing information.' Specifically, the memorandum to federal departments and agencies created new guidelines in order 'to improve information dissemination to the public.'

Obama's order also specifically ruled out any claim of executive privilege by any former vice president in keeping their records out of the public scrutiny, a reference to former Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that his proclivity for secrecy and silence was covered by that vague concept.

In issuing the order, Obama said, '[o]penness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.'

In a press statement, National Security Archive director Tom Blanton praised the move toward openness, saying, 'President Obama has reversed two of the most dramatic secrecy moves of the Bush initiatives, one that told agencies to withhold whatever they could under FOIA and the other that gave presidential heirs and vice presidents the power to withhold presidential records indefinitely.'

The National Security Archive is a research organization that regularly publishes declassified government documents and uses laws like the Freedom of Information Act.

It is too early to judge the Obama presidency, obviously, though some commentators began to do so on November 5th. What seems clear is that Obama has sought to emphasize the major themes of his campaign: peace, unity, reconciliation, and openness. Such a fresh breath of democratic air is only beginning to fill the collective lungs.