Oh yeah, I remember civilization. It was nice!
What a relief watching Obama step in and quickly turn a number of things around. I know that the president's first acts are calculated for maximum perception management and that a lot of things are mostly symbolic, but these messages and symbols are good ones. They can be part of a change of perception about what is possible for us as a people, part of a long-term, general turnaround for our country.
But it's not all metaphor and symbol. Mr. Obama is just finishing his 9th full day as president, and he already has 9 concrete accomplishments that we can be proud of.
1. Obama makes CIA stop torturing people. On January 22nd, the president signed an executive order requiring that military and paramilitary organizations (read: CIA) abide by the Army Field Manual's rules for interrogations. The Army Field Manual says no waterboarding, no inflicting physical pain, no starving or dehydrating, no electric shocks, no nudity stunts or dark sexual things. Dick Cheney and his neocon friends are probably very sad about this. The order also lists "ensuring compliance with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions" as one of its main purposes. Abiding by international human rights treaties? We're kickin' it old school!
2. Obama shuts down CIA's secret prisons. Also on January 22nd, a new executive order mandated the closing of CIA's worldwide network of secret detention and interrogation/torture centers. The point of having secret prisons, in secret locations, holding secret detainees was so that torture and other crimes would stay secret. Another point was to try to stay beyond the reach of the law. I guess one of the underlying assumptions of Neocon theory was that waterboarding someone in Egypt or Romania is more just than doing it in New York or Nebraska. Well, no matter. An adult's on the island and civilization has returned, so cut that crap out.
3. Obama orders the closing of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, aka "Gitmo," aka "American gulag." The president's executive order requires that the prison be closed within a year. Now a review process has to determine where the detainees can be transfered and where they can be tried in court. It might actually take a year, because apparently the Bush Administration did not keep files on many of the prisoners. Hmm, it's almost like justice was never even the point.
4. Obama brings back the Freedom of Information Act. Few things are as damning of the Bush Administration as its addiction to secrecy. The Bushies sent the message loud and clear to federal agencies that FOIA requests could be ignored or dismissed if the agency in question could think of any "sound legal basis." The Bush philosophy with FOIA was secrecy first, and when in doubt, err on the side of secrecy. Obama's order establishes the opposite philosophy: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," and "the presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA." In other words, openness and transparency first, and when in doubt, err on the side of openness and transparency.
5. Obama allows states to set stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration had blocked efforts by California and other states to set their own, stricter emission standards. Obama's order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review that policy. (It'll be nice to see professionals at EPA able to do their jobs again.) You could sum up this new, radical philosophy as: When in doubt, err on the side of the will of the people and the good of the planet rather than on the side of the auto companies' short-term profits.
6. Obama moves the nation toward better fuel efficiency. In another environmental executive order, Obama directed the Department of Transportation to set rules for implementing a 2007 gas mileage law that the Bush administration ignored. The new rules would cover 2011-model cars. Doesn't it feel strange seeing government encouraging progress rather than prohibiting it?
7. Obama creates the strictest lobbying rules ever. The new rules include a ban on administration officials accepting gifts from lobbyists. They also say that lobbyists taking jobs with the executive branch can't shape policy affecting their former employers or clients for a period of two years and can't take a job in an agency that they lobbied within the last two years. And officials leaving the administration can't lobby the executive branch for two years. These rules, had they miraculously gone into effect in early 2001, would have barred most of Bush's high-level appointments to regulatory agencies from ever happening.
8. Obama begins crafting withdrawal from Iraq. He was never going to make a bold proclamation on Iraq his first week in office. Instead, he made a high-profile visit to the Pentagon to meet with military leaders, as part of a review of how to wind down the war. All indications are that he is sticking to his campaign pledge of all combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months. We'll see. The same people who got us into the war are going to be trying to keep us there. The same people who told us that if we didn't support the war, then we didn't support the troops are going to tell us that ending the war is losing the war.
9. Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. This law closes a loophole opened in 2007 by the Supreme Court which drastically weakened workers' rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Ledbetter law means companies that engage in pay discrimination against an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin are no longer off the hook if they manage to keep the initial act of discrimination secret from the employee for 180 days. Yep, it was that stupid. Now it's fixed. Now an employee can bring suit within 180 days of any act of unlawful discrimination. In other words, Democrats had to overcome Republicans to pass a law saying that every crime is a crime, not just the first one.
Oh yeah, law! Civilization! We remember these things. As we enter into them, the island of savage children that was the Bush Era is going to look more and more barbaric in comparison. In some things, we can snap back to the reasonable world quickly. But it took an adult to step down onto the island and announce:
"The time has come to set aside childish things."