By Dan Froomkin
10:59 AM ET, 01/20/2009

For those of us who closely follow activities at the White House, the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama is not just a remarkable and historic event — it’s also an occasion for us to rethink our relationship to the presidency.

Obama takes office at a signal moment, with the country embroiled in a major financial crisis and two wars. Bold leadership is not only welcome, it’s required. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider last month aptly described Obama’s stratospheric approval rating (83 percent at Gallup’s last reckoning) as “the sort of rating you see when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster.” In this case, that national disaster was George Bush. The American people have called for change. And Obama, at least so far, has the hopes of the nation solidly behind him.

How, then, should we approach the man? The sort of blind faith many invested in Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is certainly not the answer. We learned that lesson the hard way. At the same time, Obama has not yet done anything to deserve the profound cynicism and distrust that Bush earned.

To avoid the dangers of an unchecked executive, we we must assertively question Obama about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how he’s doing it. We should insist on answers to our questions. And we should aggressively examine those assertions that strikes us as dubious. Indeed, Obama’s audacious promises — and all the hope he has inspired — entitle us to hold him up to a higher standard than we ever held Bush to.

But we also have a chance to raise the level of discourse, which suffered badly over the past eight years. Because the Bush White House was so opaque, we became overly accustomed to superficiality and trivia in our discussions of the presidency. Obama’s promise of transparency means we may actually have more substantial things to talk about. Faced with no evidence of a serious Bush policymaking apparatus, we put little effort into genuinely debating policy options. But by contrast, Obama has pledged to listen to good ideas from all corners and conduct open deliberation. And as a result of the Bush White House’s erasure of any distinction between governing and campaigning, we saw almost everything through a purely political lens. Obama’s promise to focus more on what’s best for the country obliges us to at least consider how he’s doing by that standard.

We should hold Obama to his bold pledges. And if he keeps them, we should rise to the occasion. Rather than be too cynical, or focus too much on the superficial and the political, we should embrace an opportunity that we haven’t had in quite some time: To publicly explore the important issues and decisions facing our nation and our world.

The Issues

How, then do we hold Obama accountable? In his “Person of the Year” interview with Time last month, Obama set out a reasonable list of benchmarks for assessing his progress. Asked how voters two years from know will know whether or not he’s succeeding, Obama replied:

“I think there are a couple of benchmarks we’ve set for ourselves during the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn’t occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? That’s on the domestic front.

“On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan — not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can’t solve on our own?”

The best way to start holding Obama accountable for those benchmarks would be to start contemplating what it would take to achieve them. Rather than simply being reactive — or trivial — we should engage in serious explorations of such questions as: How do we withdraw from Iraq in a way that maximizes our political and humanitarian goals? What are the most efficient ways to create jobs? What green technologies are ready for advancement? What are the levers that can be pulled to increase access to health care, and reduce costs? How do we make government work again?

Other Important Themes

There are several other issues that I expect will become central themes of my writing in the coming weeks, months and years. Among them:

After eight years of Bush, dealing with an even somewhat transparent regime will be a big change for us all — but it also potentially offers us the opportunity to rise to the occasion and play a much more satisfying role than we’ve gotten used to.

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