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'A Pretty Good Place to Start'

President Obama often spoke during the campaign about a new kind of politics. He promised a common-sense way of running the country that defied left-right stereotypes.

It wasn't always entirely clear what he meant by that.

But on his first full day in office yesterday, Obama offered a dramatic example of what he has in mind. History will record that Obama's first major official act was to set out a fundamentally different way of doing business with the American people: Namely, in the open.

"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable," Obama said. "And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served."

He then proceeded to sign a series of executive orders and memos that, as he said, "mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. . . .

"Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

Obama issued three memos: one establishes bold new rules regarding transparency and open government; another instructs executive-branch officials who enforce the Freedom of Information Actto err on the side of making materials public rather than looking for reasons to legally withhold them; and the third freezes pay of White House staffers making over $100,000. He also signed two executive orders: one establishing strict ethics rules for his political appointees and another making presidential records more accessible.

Obama is reversing not so much Bush-era policies as a Bush-era polarity.

And yet there is nothing overtly liberal or conservative about transparency and accountability -- it's just a good way to run the government. Incompetence, cronyism and corruption thrive in the darkness. Confident governments aren't afraid of people finding out what they've done, or how they've done it.

Washington in the Bush years became accustomed to the incredible secrecy under which the Bush White House operated. But it's hard to look back at the Bush legacy without recognizing disasters that might have been averted had more information been available to the public, and had dissent not been so assiduously suppressed.

Obama didn't just tear down walls of secrecy yesterday. He called on his administration to embrace modern technology to get out information and solicit public response.

"[T]hese steps are aimed at establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it, and to help restore that faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make," Obama said in his remarks.

"The executive orders and directives I'm issuing today will not by themselves make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be. And they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington. But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come. That's a pretty good place to start."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Coupled with Tuesday's Inaugural Address, which repudiated the Bush administration's decisions on everything from science policy to fighting terrorism, the actions were another sign of the new president's effort to emphasize an across-the-board shift in priorities, values and tone. . . .

"A president's first act in office carries great symbolism. Aides to Mr. Obama spent weeks debating a variety of options. . . .

"In the end, Mr. Obama used his first day to send two messages that echoed themes from his campaign: first, that he is intent on keeping his promises to run a clean and open government; and, second, that he understands the pain Americans are feeling as a result of the economic crisis."

Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons write in the Los Angeles Times: "'This is big,' said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University that has challenged Bush administration policies on the release of information. 'No president has done so much on the first day in office to make his administration transparent.'"

Dan Eggen and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "New lobbying and records rules issued by President Obama yesterday appear to go beyond changes implemented by previous presidents, and could usher in an era of openness in federal government, according to ethics experts and open-government advocates. "

But be warned: They're making exceptions already. Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that two Obama appointments appear to run foul of the new rule that any lobbyists who get a job across his administration may not work on matters that they lobbied on and cannot even work in any agency they lobbied over the past years.

"William Corr, nominated for deputy secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, is listed in House and Senate records last year as having lobbied the agency, among other entities, on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"And William J. Lynn III, Obama's choice for the No. 2 at the Defense Department, was listed as a top lobbyist at the Pentagon for Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor.

"'Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions,' White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. 'Our waiver provisions are designed to allow uniquely qualified individuals like Bill Corr and Bill Lynn to serve the public interest in these critical times.'"

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press that Obama's move comes as "the latest in a three-decade-long pingpong game with FOIA policy.

"In the late 1970s, Carter's attorney general, Griffin Bell, issued guidance to err on the side of releasing information. Under Reagan, William French Smith came in and reversed that; he told them, 'when in doubt withhold.' Then under Clinton, Janet Reno reversed it again; she told agencies their presumption should be for release.

"But Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft went back the other way in October 2001, telling agencies he would defend any legal justification for withholding documents. . . .

"Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, praised Obama's move after many years in which government 'has worked at restricting the flow of information to Americans, bypassing the First Amendment.'

"'This step toward providing more access and making our government agencies more accountable can help build the people's confidence in government,' he said."

Abdon M. Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun-Times about the reaction from open-government advocates: "'Hot damn! This is astonishing. And wonderful,' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 'You know there's a new sheriff in town. . . .

"'We had meeting after meeting with Obama's transition team, and I told them, in my dream world, Obama would get up there on Inauguration Day and say, "Transparency will be the watchword of this administration,"' Dalglish said. 'I'm speechless. I am dreaming, right?'"

David Corn blogs for CQ: "[W]hile FOIA may seem a boutique issue to some, it represents a basic attitude adjustment. . . . Arrogant leaders abuse secrecy, believing they know best. With this order, Obama is sending the message that he has a different--and more democratic--view of the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed."

Ryan Powers reports for Thinkprogress.org on the reaction from right-wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh, who had this to say: "What I'm afraid of is that what Obama did with this executive order is actually make it easier for the media to go get Bush documents. Because you know Pelosi and some of the guys over in congress are talking about war crimes trials and charges and so forth."

By Dan Froomkin  |  January 22, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Transparency  
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