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.

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