Thursday, November 27, 2008

Changing tone and content from Day 1

The recount returns continue to dribble in from Minnesota's too-close-to-call Senate race, and political super-stars from Bill Clinton to Sarah Palin have flown to Georgia to campaign in the Senate runoff there for their party's respective candidates.

But for all this election's end-game hoopla, odds are that the Democrats and Barack Obama will fall short of the oft-mentioned "filibuster proof" 60-seat Senate Democratic majority.

In the end, it likely won't matter. First off, it's a specious notion that either party has the discipline to keep every vote in line. A hint of compromise on key legislation isn't always a bad thing anyway.

More importantly, however, is that Barack Obama needs no filibuster-proof congressional mandate to make an immediate impact on the United States and the world with his inauguration day speech, Jan. 20. In smaller but substantive ways, his influence is already evident. While some progressives grumble about his Cabinet's Clintonesque shade, its racial and gender makeup are breaking ground. That goes not only for the highest profile selections leaked to the press such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gov. Janet Napolitano, Eric Holder and Gov. Bill Richardson, but also for the less well-known but equally influential figures such as the two women (one white, one black) introduced last week as part of his new economic team. (They are, respectively, Christina Romer, new chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Melody Barnes, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council).

Still, if naming a Cabinet keeps hungry press pundits fed, it doesn't directly set a tone for the Administration's actions. That could, and should, come on inauguration day in Obama's address.
As part of his speech, I'm hoping he does three things that don't require a single vote in Congress:

1. Obama should tell Americans and the world that his administration will reject all undemocratic and illegal means of achieving the professed ends of securing this country's freedom. It goes without saying that the Bush Administration did not.

First, Obama should make clear that his administration will shut down the infamous holding cells on Guantanamo within a clearly specified time period; try the suspected terrorists held there through the United States court system or, when evidence is lacking, repatriate them to their own countries; and end other extralegal and illegal actions of the Bush Administration such as "extraordinary rendition," the practice of kidnapping suspected terrorists and shipping them overseas to be tortured.

He should also call for a thorough review of legislation such as the Military Commissions Act, which suspends the centuries-old legal rights of suspected terrorists to petition the courts, and the so-called Patriot Act, which has been used, among other things, as a justification for some of the current administration's domestic spying. Finally, he should say in no uncertain terms that the United States will not tolerate the torture of its prisoners and will adhere to the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

Though actions speak louder than words, the words -- issued to the world in his first speech -- would matter, not just to Americans but to people around the globe.

2. Obama should call for a new spirit of sacrifice among Americans focused on helping those weaker, poorer and less able to help themselves. And he should talk about how that spirit can be turned to service.

Though such specific policy might not be appropriate for the inaugural speech, I'd like to see him propose something along the lines of a Civilian Volunteer Corps, a government-organized way for retired workers and others to share their experience, interest and expertise at everything from tutoring students in schools and providing early child care to patching roofs and plumbing pipes.

3. Obama should promise the American people that its policy decision in areas ranging from global warming to missle defense will be based on scientific evidence and will not use ideological pre-conceptions to squelch scientific consensus. He could give weight to this promise by elevating the president's top scientific advisor to the level of a Cabinet appointee. The need to emphasize such "reality-based" decision-making grows from persistent efforts of the Bush Administration to not only silence critics but disregard and distort scientific evidence in areas ranging from climate change to stem cell research.

Ultimately, Congress can't hold back an Obama Administration (and would be crazy to try).
Only its own timidity can do so. And that seems unlikely.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Just where is the place for "we the people?"

I wrote a post-election piece for The Christian Science Monitor asking whether Barack Obama would be able to deliver in these terrible economic times. A reader's response gave me pause.

Wrote Diane Puderbaugh of Ashland, Ore.: Jerry Lanson asks if Barack Obama can convert the call for change to reality, but I think the bigger question is, can we, as Americans, bring about the changes we desire in our own daily lives?

Are we, the people, the elected officials, the corporate leaders, living within our means? Are we working hard, living ethically, and telling the truth? Do we use civil discourse, leadership, and diplomacy while dealing with family and community members? Do we practice patience and vision as we work toward common goals? This is how true, fundamental change will happen in America, and each and every one of us can make it a reality.

I love her thoughts. But her questions, to some extent, demand more than individual action. Certainly the more fervent Obama supporters are trying to keep the grass roots spirit of the campaign alive. Kathy and I made a modest contribution to the campaign. Now we're being bombarded with emails from local activists inviting us to parties where, presumably, work will be done to keep people engaged in community and government.

I confess. I've dragged my feet. Why? I teach journalism. I write. I'm always nagged by the journalists training to hang back, to observe, to leave activism to others. Call it an occupational hazard. But at the same time I'm rooting for people like Brigid and Joan (as they sign their email) from the neighboring town of Arlington, who wrote: "Many of us have been wondering how we might continue the great work we did together." I'm not rooting in a political sense, but in a civic sense. Deep down, I want Diane Puderbaugh to be right.

But the skeptic in me also participates in this debate.

Brigid and Joan went on to call for something anyone of any political stripe can support, such things as delivering food to the needy at Thanksgiving, for example. They gave names and addresses of drop-off points, including an Obama-friendly bakery.

And this isn't a Massachusetts phenomenon. USA Today reported that it's happening nationwide:

In Indiana, a group of Obama volunteers met Wednesday to plan a food-pantry drive. "It's easy to see that this (economic downturn) is going to be a very serious long-term problem," says Pam Warren, who organized the meeting in Bloomington, Ind. "Until we get marching orders from President-elect Obama — I love saying that — we figured we have already been taught to take care of ourselves."

But I wonder. Is this help or hindrance? Don't enough non-profits already exist to organize food drives that help the needy? And if its a hindrance, just what is the next step, the means of achieving that self-reliance, those personal good deeds that Puderbaugh called for in her letter to the editor?

I'll keep listening and let you know what I find out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hope is fine, but it is integrity that we need most

The lawn signs linger.

I took my own down last week and stored it in the basement. I've saved the front page of The Boston Globe, too. I couldn't find a New York Times. They were old sold out by 9 a.m. the day after election.

No wonder. This country will only elect its first African-American (make that mixed race) president once. But Barack Obama's race has next to nothing to do with why I'm starting a new blog during his transition to the presidency. This will be an historic presidency of necessity, not skin color. My TIAA-CREF retirement account says some stocks have dropped more than 50 percent. Nearly all are down 40. And I'm among the truly lucky. I have a job. I have full health insurance. My cars are paid up. My mortgage is fixed. And no one hurls insults at me because of my surname, my skin color, my sexual preference or -- for now at least -- my politics.

Those politics, let me say up front, are liberal, same as they've been the last 40 years. Back then, in the late '60s, friends would chide me for being too tepid, not radical enough. I wasn't much of a marcher, though I admired the spine of those who were. And now in the 21st century? At least until this most recent election, I've felt like a lonely lefty, somewhere on the fringe for such radical thoughts as believing in the Constitution, its Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions, for believing America has no right to arrest people and throw away the key, that it has no right to bomb those who haven't bombed us first, that our government has a role -- an important one -- in doing good, in helping the poor, the less fortunate, the less able to help themselves.

For all the euphoria about Barack Obama, those who share my views shouldn't be fooled or complacent. Plenty of people don't agree. I see the lawn signs lingering, as many of them in some neighborhoods for McCain-Palin as for Obama-Biden. While the latter may be a celebration (or a bit of "for once I'm the winner"), the former unmistakably speak to me of home-owners and voters who have no intention of giving ground, no intention of embracing a new order, no intention of switching the channel from Fox. And I live in Massachusetts. I'd love to get a peek at the lingering lawn signs in Selma, Ala., or Laredo, Texas.

Still, I'm hoping this administration doesn't waste its time counting those signs.
If Barack Obama wants to govern from the middle, to bring Republicans into his Cabinet, I respect his decency and his effort to change the politics of disparagement. It is a reasonable approach -- so long as the Obama Administration also governs with integrity. I hope his economic plan starts with a stimulus package for working Americans; I'm tired of everyone wringing their hands for the fat cats. But even more, I hope his administration makes a statement -- on Day 1, as Hillary Clinton likes to say -- by closing Guantanamo, by making clear that torture has no place in America's leadership, by announcing the beginning of plans to extricate ourselves from Iraq.

To me, those gestures are more important than which Democratic ally will fill the seat of secretary of state. They say more than a speech about American ingenuity or a commitment to listen to the people.

And they require no act of Congress. Barack Obama has a long agenda and little money to pursue it. But he can take a big step toward reviving and restoring America's place in the world with just a few, timely, well-framed little words. I can't wait to hear them.