President Barack Obama got off to a quick start in his first full day in office, mixing ceremonial duties with his first official forays into domestic and foreign policy.
Obama attended a prayer service at the National Cathedral, greeted 200 members of the public in a White House receiving line and swore in his top aides. But he also convened his senior national security and economic teams for separate afternoon meetings after spending part of the morning on the phone with four Mideast leaders discussing the Gaza conflict.
Perhaps most significantly, Obama underscored that a new administration had taken over the capital with a series of executive orders aimed at creating the open government he promised on the campaign trail.
Obama said the moves were aimed at helping to “restore that faith in government without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make,” drawing a barely veiled contrast between himself and a predecessor who was accused by critics of excessive secrecy and legal abuses.
In the executive orders and memoranda he signed Wednesday afternoon, Obama announced that no lobbyist will be allowed to take a White House job in an area where they lobbied. Nor would former lobbyists who come to work for him be allowed to lobby the administration after leaving government service.
He banned gifts from lobbyists to administration officials. And he said he’d require all those, not just lobbyists, who serve him to commit in writing to refrain from influencing colleagues for two years. The moves represent “a clean break from business as usual,” Obama said.
Obama’s announcement fulfills a campaign pledge – but one that he watered down significantly over the course of his presidential campaign.
Initially, the new president pledged that lobbyists would not be allowed to work in his administration.
He eventually tweaked his stump speech to promise that lobbyists wouldn’t “run” his White House.
Also, in a nod toward the difficult economic times many in the country are facing, Obama said his senior White House staff would be subject to a pay freeze. Aides said the freeze would kick in for senior staff making $100,000 or more.
The new president also said Freedom of Information act requests would be more routinely approved by his administration.
“For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city,” Obama said. “The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.”
Hinting more directly at former Vice President Cheney, who sought to keep information about White House meetings concealed, Obama added: “The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean that you should always use it,”
In a statement sent out following Obama’s announcement, the White House said that senior aides would be tasked with producing an “Open Government Directive” within 120 days directing specific actions to implement the principles in the memorandum. The memorandum on FOIA gives the Attorney General the same time frame to issue new guidelines on government transparency.
Before deciding to bar information from public view, Obama said he would consult with his Attorney General and White House counsel – a move aimed at curbing the Bush administration’s penchant for making information classified. President George W. Bush argued that as president, he had the right to classify – or declassify – information as he saw fit.
Further, and in a move that will greatly please historians and students of the presidency, Obama revoked Bush’s order limiting access to White House documents.
Bush angered scholars and open-government advocates with an executive order in 2001 giving ex-presidents and presidents the authority to block rlease of White House records.
For all of Obama’s swiftness, there were a few hiccups in a day that had the haphazard feel of the first day of school.
Reporters and aides who arrived around 9 a.m. were initially not let in the building, leaving a group of reporters swarming around Bill Burton, the deputy press secretary and for much of the morning the only press aide fielding questions.
Burton was also one of the few press staffers to have a working White House email address. Even as they came to work in the most powerful office in the country, Obama aides were reliant upon Gmail addresses and struggling to turn on their computers and navigate a complicated log-in system.
Some had not even obtained permanent credentials yet (Burton, as “William A. Burton,” and Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, as “Howard D. Pfeiffer,” were the exceptions who sported hard passes around their neck)
The suite of offices outside the briefing room reflected the Spartan existence.
Burton had a desktop computer, a flat-screen TV on the wall and many more hooks and nails on a barren wall.
The briefing room was frigid, a result of a door that was frequently opened to a frigid day. Reporters wore scarves and hats as they tapped away at laptops, strolling into the press office at will in an act of transparency Obama aides hope won’t last.