Now in charge, Obama turns from words to actions
President Barack Obama is executing the clean break from the Bush administration that he promised in his campaign and his inaugural address, with a dizzying series of events highlighting openness, inclusiveness and ethics.world Updated: Jan 22, 2009 12:39 IST
President Barack Obama is executing the clean break from the Bush administration that he promised in his campaign and his inaugural address, with a dizzying series of events highlighting openness, inclusiveness and ethics.
The man known for speaking so eloquently now seems determined on doing things, dispensing a flurry of executive orders on his first full day in office Wednesday, even if he had only just seized the levers of government and his top aides had yet to turn on their computers.
Whereas George W Bush and his vice president were known for secrecy and tightly held decisions, Obama issued federal worker guidelines that he said will make government "transparent, so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made," and "how they're being made."
Where Bush took extraordinary steps to detain and interrogate foreigners deemed "enemy combatants," Obama readied plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year and end military trials of terrorist suspects held there.
And if that weren't enough symbolism, he opened the White House to visitors a day after its previous eight-year occupant left for Texas.
It's hardly surprising that a Democrat who ran against Bush's unpopular policies would change course. But the speed at which Obama is moving, and the sharpness with which he outlined his differences on Tuesday, are notable in a city known for snail-paced policymaking and rhetorical obfuscation.
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama said in his inaugural speech, as Bush and other Republicans sat stone-faced behind him. The time "of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions" is over, he said.
In a jab at Bush's warrantless wiretaps and interrogation techniques that many considered torture, Obama said: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Of course, promising change and making it work _ and making it last _ can be different matters. Before the day was out, the administration announced "waiver provisions" for some of its new ethical guidelines.
Obama also set new "revolving door" restrictions for those leaving and entering his administration. Applicants must agree not to accept jobs "with any executive agency" they have lobbied within two years of being appointed, he said.
When it was noted later that top appointees to the Defense Department and Health and Human Services Department had lobbied those respective agencies in 2008, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions."
Obama directed his administration "to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans, scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs" to solve problems. He also said his administration "stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known." History shows that secrecy is a powerful temptation for presidents _ as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and others learned to their regret _ and Obama's political adversaries surely will monitor his adherence to these goals.
Meanwhile, the new president has yet to say what will happen to all of Guantanamo's detainees, and Republicans are watching closely. "The key question is where do you put these terrorists," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, sidestepping whether it's clear that each detainee is in fact a terrorist.
The new president's biggest challenges, of course, lie ahead. But Obama got a start, at least, on Wednesday. After meeting with his top advisers on Iraq, he asked military leaders to make plans "necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown" from that war-torn nation.
He also met with his economic team while Congress moved closer to approving $358 billion in new stimulus spending and to confirming his choice of Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary. A big meeting on the persistent problem of long-term funding for the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and Social Security retirement benefits is expected next month, with no guarantees that Obama will succeed where previous presidents failed. For his first day in office, however, he would have been hard-pressed to make a bigger show of delivering on campaign promises.
"What an opportunity we have to change this country," Obama said.
After two years of nonstop campaigning, now he can be one of the "doers, the makers of things" he hailed in his speech Tuesday.