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January 23, 2009

The Obama Administration seems to have fulfilled its first promise: to hit the ground running.

In his first full day in office, President Barack Obama enacted two executive orders dealing with government openness and ethics. The NEW YORK TIMES suggested that, like many presidents before him, President Obama carefully chose these orders to send a message about his priorities as President.

As the week progressed, the Obama administration continued to roll out a steady stream of orders and memoranda, using the reigns of executive power to change course.

The speed with which President Obama changed long-standing policies from the Bush era, and acted to stall the Bush administration's midnight regulations, serves to highlight the wide powers vested in the executive branch under the president. The power comes not only from the president's right to enact rules and veto legislation, but also from the "bully-pulpit," and with appointments to key positions in the executive branch.

Yet, Obama's early appointments and executive actions hint that he intends to roll back some of the growth in executive power under President Bush. This may surprise John Nichols, who, in a conversation with Bill Moyers and Bruce Fein on the JOURNAL in 2007, argued that presidents, once given powers, are loath to give them up: "But whoever gets [the presidency], one of the things we know about power is that people don't give away the tools. They don't give them up." Nichols, though, recently reported on his blog that another long-time critic of executive power, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), while saying much remains to undo, has called President Obama's initial actions a "triumph for the rule of law."

Though this all indicates that President Obama has a different view of executive power than the Bush administration, some critics argue that he may not be so different after all, citing his request for complete control over the remaining $350 billion of bailout money. This, they worry, is proof that he'll hang on to unprecented powers won by the Bush administration where he deems necessary.

During his first week, President Obama has addressed several high profile Bush administration policies, dealing with government openness and ethics, torture and detention policy, reproductive policies, and gave hints of changes to come. Some of the notable changes, with links to the official documents, background, and pertinent news coverage, appear below.

Openess and Ethics
President Obama's symbolic first executive orders focused on government openness and ethics, themes he often used in his campaign and in his inaugural address.

In one of his first executive orders, President Obama revoked the use of executive privilige as a means for former presidents and their heirs to keep documents from becoming public. In a separate memorandum President Obama undid a post-9/11 directive from the Bush administration that had encouraged federal agencies to deny Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Additionally, President Obama signed a memorandum outlining his administration's committment to open and transparent government.

>>More on government secrecy under the Bush administration

In another executive order, saying that he hoped to end the "revolving door" between government jobs and lobbying firms, President Obama has — among other restrictions — banned anyone who leaves his administration from lobbying former colleagues for the length of his administration. Though the order is perhaps the most restrictive in Washington's history, some open government officials say it cannot completely prevent administration officials from leaving for the profitable fields of the influence-peddling industry.

>>More on ethics in Washington

Torture and Detention
On day two as president, Barack Obama tackled the detention and interrogation policies evolved by the Bush administration after 9/11. In a series of executive orders, he called for a review of individuals being held in Guantanamo, established a commission to determine other detention options, and ordered the CIA to conform to the more restrictive interrogation policies followed by the military and laid out by the Geneva Conventions.

In separate statements, President Obama signaled his intent to close not only Guantanamo, but also the network of secret prisons maintained throughought the world by the CIA, known as "blacksites."

>>More on the debate over torture and detention

Published January 23, 2009.

Related Media:

Glenn Greenwald on government power
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Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI)
As one of the most progressive voices in the Senate who also campaigned for President-elect Obama, what does Russ Feingold (D-WI) expect of the next four years? Bill Moyers sits down with the Wisconsin Senator to find out his perspectives on progressivism and its role in the new administration, and to ask him what changes he'd like to see in the Obama Presidency. (December 5, 2008)

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Philippe Sands
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Jack L. Goldsmith
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Josh Marshall on the Attorney Firings
Popular political blogger Josh Marshall from talkingpointsmemo.com gives the Journal his perspective on the role of politics in the recent firings of federal prosecutors. (April 27, 2007)

John Dean
Watch Nixon lawyer John Dean discuss presidential secrecy with Bill Moyers on NOW with Bill Moyers, April 2, 2004.


YouTubeScott Horton on NOW
David Brancaccio spoke with Scott Horton about the legal underpinnings of the War on Terror and American detention policy. Scott Horton is a New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict. Horton lectures at Columbia Law School.

References and Reading:
Official White House web site.
Full texts of Presidential Memoranda and Executive Orders.

"On First Day, Obama Quickly Sets a New Tone"
by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 21, 2009.

"Obama Stops Clock Ticking on Midnight Regs, But Others Still Ticking"
by Joaquin Sapien, PROPUBLICA, January 21, 2009.

"Obama Orders Secret Prisons and Detention Camps Closed"
By Scott Shane, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 22, 2009.

"On 36th Anniversary, Obama Praises Roe v. Wade Precedent"
by Michael Falcone, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 22, 2009.

"Obama Picks Critic of Warrantless Wiretapping for Slot at Justice Dept."
by Eric Lichtblau, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 22, 2009.

"Obama to lift funding ban for abortion groups abroad"
By Matt Spetalnick, REUTERS/WASHINGTON POST, January 23, 2009.

"President Obama 'orders Pakistan drone attacks'"
By Tim Reid, TIMES ONLINE, January 23, 2009.

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published January 23, 2009.

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