"Remaking America"

The bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day provided a fitting backdrop for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president. But in his inaugural address, the new president alluded only briefly to the historical significance of his election. He focused not on what had been achieved, but on the daunting challenges before him.

The customary inaugural references to the Founding Fathers and the nation’s noble “ideals” took on a new urgency in the context of Obama’s speech. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” he proclaimed. “The time has come...to choose our better history.”

That night, President Obama ordered the suspension of military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay. This order, and those issued in the following days, took the first steps toward closing the notorious prison—itself the first step in repairing the nation’s reputation around the world. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration declared captives in the so-called war on terror “unlawful enemy combatants,” justifying their indefinite detention in camps like the one at Guantánamo. Terror suspects were denied the protections of the Geneva Conventions and established U.S. law. Bush claimed these abuses were necessary to protect America, but reports of torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere became a rallying cry for Islamist terrorist groups. Having pledged to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” Obama announced a new approach, proclaiming, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

In the days that followed, the president set a timetable for shutting down Guantánamo and ordered the closing of the CIA’s secret prisons abroad. Declaring the Geneva Conventions “a minimum baseline” for the treatment of detainees, he ordered government agents to disregard Bush-era decisions to the contrary. Republican partisans immediately protested, calling these actions “irresponsible.” They repeated the Bush administration’s claim that, in the fight against terrorism, the United States cannot afford to be governed by its own laws. Obama’s position, one shared by a growing number of Americans, is that we can’t afford not to.

Though Bush loyalists continue to portray Obama as “soft on terror,” the new president has promised to refocus American military efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he called “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.” Obama has also indicated, however, that diplomacy will have a central role in his foreign policy. He appointed an emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke; and George Mitchell, his special envoy to the Middle East, began a “listening tour” of that region on January 27. Airing the same day was Obama’s first official interview granted to an Arabic-language television station, in which he announced to the Muslim world, “Americans are not your enemy.”

Restoring trust in the government is also a priority at home. The Bush administration protected itself with a policy of nondisclosure. Quoting Justice Louis Brandeis’s words, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Obama ordered government agencies to apply a “presumption of disclosure” to all information requests. “The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears,” he wrote. Members of his administration are also subject to stricter ethics regulations, including limitations on lobbying (already causing problems for some of Obama’s own appointees). And, in another nod to transparency, all executive orders and memoranda are now posted on the White House Web site (whitehouse.gov), which has been revamped “to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government.”

Openness has also characterized Obama’s relationship with Republican legislators. Before the economic stimulus bill was put up for a vote in the House, the president went to Capitol Hill to meet with Republicans. By all accounts, the discussions were respectful and sincere, and they resulted in some changes to the bill (more tax cuts, less spending). Nevertheless, under the leadership of minority leader John Boehner, House Republicans voted unanimously against the plan. Obama may not need their votes, but he seems determined to work for their support. “The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he declared at his inauguration. Let’s hope so.

February 3, 2009

Published in the 2009-02-13 issue: 
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