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Rethinking how we cover the White House

COMMENTARY | January 22, 2009

Faced with an opaque presidency these past eight years, journalists grew too accustomed to trading in superficiality and trivia. But Obama's promise of transparency means we may now have more substantial things to talk about. Dan Froomkin writes that we should embrace the opportunity to publicly explore the important issues and decisions facing our nation and our world.

(This essay originally appeared on washingtonpost.com.)

By Dan Froomkin

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.

President 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 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 strike 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:

  • Transparency. Obama has made soaring promises about making his the most transparent White House ever. That would certainly make a welcome change. But will he follow through, once he starts to feel the pressures of the office? One key early test will be how many people on his staff he allows to talk to the press on the record.
  • The Use of Technology. First in his campaign and then in his transition, Obama made bold and innovative use of the Internet, not just to get his message out but to enable citizens to make themselves heard. What’s next? A Wiki White House? The new White House Web site could potentially transform the relationship between the president and the people. But will it?
  • Obama’s Brain Trust. It was never entirely clear who, besides Vice President Cheney and Karl Rove, Bush really listened to — or precisely how much influence they had on him. Especially because Obama has made it clear that even his most independent-minded appointees will be taking their direction from him, it’s important for us to fully understand who his closest advisers and confidantes are, how much influence they have and what their backgrounds are. How will Washington’s traditional powerbrokers try to assert themselves with him, and will it work?
  • The Bubble. Obama shows an admirable aversion to the bubble that so poorly served his predecessor. But how, precisely, will he keep it at bay? And how successful will he be? Will he keep an e-mail account? [Apparently, yes.] How will he make sure that he continues to be exposed to alternate views?
  • The Bush Legacy. How much energy will Obama have to expend undoing things Bush did? From overturning midnight regulations to banning torture to restoring federal funding for stem-cell research, how much of the administration’s limited bandwidth will be devoted to rolling back the Bush era, and how much to establishing the Obama era?
  • Government Competence. One of Bush’s key legacies is a broken federal government, the result of eight years of deliberate politicization, circumvention of the traditional policymaking process, ignorance of expert advice and suppression of dissent. What combination of policy and personnel changes will it take to restore competence? Will Obama restore the traditional policy-making apparatus, instead of short-circuiting it as Bush did?
  • Torture and Other Bush Administration Abuses. Will we ever find out what the Bush administration really did in our name? How much will Obama encourage — or even allow — his aides to make public what Bush kept secret? Will he launch investigations? Will he encourage criminal prosecution where appropriate? Obama has talked about the need to look forward as opposed to looking backward, but some sort of a reckoning is desperately needed. It’s not just that we deserve to know what happened, it’s that we need to guarantee it doesn’t happen again.
  • Executive Power. Will Obama renounce all of the Bush-era assertions of executive power? Or are there any he will choose to hold onto? Will he, for instance, seek congressional authorization before exercising legitimate wartime powers?
  • Race. There is something profoundly moving about seeing a black family in the White House. How will this change how whites and people of color see themselves and each other?
  • Congress. Yes, Congress is run by Obama’s fellow Democrats. But how will he work with Congressional leaders who consistently enabled the Bush agenda? To the extent that he will be undoing the work of the last eight years, much of it is their work — certainly when it comes to national security issues such as military commissions and surveillance. Is it possible the Democratic leaders will be less afraid to confront him than they were Bush? (Could they be any more?)
  • Hope v. Fear. Obama’s campaign theme was hope. He enters the White House after an era of fear. Bush, after all, could have responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by telling the nation not to be afraid, but instead he used fear as a political weapon to achieve what were in some cases longstanding political goals. Will Obama urge us to be less fearful? Will he turn away from Bush’s rhetoric? Specifically, will he keep using the term “war on terror”?

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.

Seven Questions for Barack Obama
From Columbia Journalism Review

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