Keeping an Eye on Rivals

Barack Obama most likely realized that having Hillary Clinton in his administration was safer than leaving her in the Senate to lead opposition to his policies. While some recent Secretaries of State have been close to the president who appointed them, it is expected that major foreign policy decisions will be made in the White House with Clinton having less influence than many of her predecessors. Ben Smith describes part of the power play under way:

With the suggestion that he was offered, and turned down, the job Hillary Clinton took hovering in the air, Joe Biden’s presence at the State Department hints at the complexity of his role in this administration.

He has no formal or statuatory role at the State Department.

Yet he’s the immediate past chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And these are the days in which turf is being won and lost; he has evidently claimed a chunk of it today.

A glimpse at the behind-the-scenes drama here: Biden introduced Hillary. But Hillary doesn’t talk about herself as part of some troika with Biden and Obama: The phrase, which she hits hard and repeatedly, is “the President and I.”

Her preferred phrase might be “the President and I” but her position on the totem pole is well below that.

What Change Means In The First Week Alone

Having completed only one full day in office, Barack Obama is off to quite a start. Glenn Greenwald summarizes:

Barack Obama will have spent his first several days in office issuing a series of executive orders which, some quibbling and important caveats and reservations aside, meet or actually exceed even the most optimistic expectations of civil libertarians for what he could or would do quickly — everything from ordering the closing of Guantanamo to suspending military commissions to compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual to banning CIA “black sites” and, perhaps most encouragingly (in my view):  severely restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents and other information on the basis of secrecy, which was the prime corrosive agent, the main enabler, of the Bush era.  As a result, establishment and right-wing figures who have been assuring everyone (most of all themselves) that Obama, in these areas, would scorn “the Left” (meaning:  those who believe in Constitutional safeguards) and would continue most of Bush’s “counter-Terrorism” policies are growing increasingly nervous about this flurry of unexpected Bush-repudiating activity.

Spence Ackerman adds:

For all the talk about Obama not governing as a progressive, take a look at his first not-even-48 hours in office. He’s suspended the Guantanamo Bay military commissions, a first step toward shuttering the entire detention complex. He’s assembled his military commanders to discuss troop withdrawals from Iraq. He’s issued a far-reaching order on transparency in his administration that mandates, among other things, a two-year ban on any ex-lobbyists working on issues they lobbied for. And now he’s shutting down the CIA’s off-the-books detention complexes in the war on terrorism.

According to my friend Eli Lake and his colleague Sara Carter at the Washington Times, Obama has a draft executive order, intended for issuance today, that closes “all permanant detention facilities overseas.” It was at sites like these that the torture of the senior-most Al Qaeda detainees, like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, took place, and despite the transfer of 14 of those detainees to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, the network of detention facilities remained in place, though circumscribed in their functioning. Detainees taken there had no rights, only the prerogatives of their jailers, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, had no access to them. The revelation that European countries like Poland and Romania cooperated with the U.S. in establishing the secret prisons touched off a scandal in the Council of Europe after a 2007 inquiry.

Lake and Carter also report that detainees in the future held by CIA must have their interrogations fall into line with the Geneva Conventions-compliant guidelines of the revised Army Field Manual on interrogations. (Although bmaz raises questions about how Geneva-compliant the manual really is.) That’s something that some CIA operatives have pragmatic concerns about. Luckily, at 10 a.m., ret. Adm. Dennis Blair, President Obama’s nominee to become director of national intelligence, will testify to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for his confirmation hearing, so we may get some clarity later this morning. (Or, perhaps more likely, Blair will ask to go into closed session to field those questions…) I’ll have more when the hearing starts.

But for progressives, that’s a pretty robust first two days. Oh, and the New York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti and William Glaberson add that an additional executive order will establish a cabinet-level panel to assess where in the United States detainees from Guantanamo will be tried. That sounds a lot like a step toward civilian federal criminal trials.

Steve Benen concludes:

I expected him to hit the ground running, but it was less clear what he’d be running towards. But consider what we saw on the first day — the new president not only created stricter lobbying rules than any administration in history, but he also issued sweeping orders to boost accountability and transparency. He not only took steps to halt the military tribunal process at Gitmo, but he also reached out to leaders in the Middle East to recommit the United States to the peace process…

I’ll spare you the cliches about “change you can believe in,” but I will say that this is exactly the kind of start I’d hoped to see.

Will Barack Obama do everything he promised during the campaign? Probably not. Will he do everything I would like to see him do? Almost certainly not. What matters is that we should see a considerable improvement over the government of the past eight years. We can also expect Obama to quickly end the global gag rule, and to allow funding for embryonic stem cell research.