Obama Uses Executive Power To Alter Bush Policies
President Obama has moved quickly to put an early stamp on his presidency by wielding the power of executive order, and the nation's capital is rife with speculation about what other significant Bush administration policies he may reverse or modify in coming days.
In the nascent days of his administration, the new president has used his executive authority to freeze not-yet-finalized Bush-era federal regulations, stopped plans to ease air pollution standards, and established a more open public-records policy. His top staffers' salaries have been frozen, and stricter lobbyist and gift rules have been issued.
And Thursday, with the stroke of a pen and a matter-of-fact "there we go," Obama ordered the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closed within a year.
The president's fast start has environmentalists, abortion rights activists and those who advocate federal funding for embryonic stem cell research agitating for quick changes on their hot-button issues, and there are signals from the new administration that action on some may be coming soon.
Obama fulfilled one of his most high-profile campaign promises Thursday when he signed the orders to close the controversial detainee camp and secret overseas prisons and ban the use of torture during detainee questioning. He also set up a task force that has been asked to figure out over the next several months what to do with prisoners whose circumstances prevent them from being transferred to another country or tried in the U.S. federal court system.
"The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism," Obama said, in a manner that's "consistent with our values and our ideals."
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the new orders a "civil liberties trifecta."
"President Obama is to be commended for taking such bold and decisive action so early in his administration on an issue that is critical to restoring an America we can be proud of again," he said.
There was little question that few supported maintaining the camp. But even on a day when rights advocates like Romero were hailing the president's action, and the conservative Heritage Foundation said that the camp had hurt the country's reputation, there were indications of the looming difficulties — legal and otherwise — inherent in closing down the camp.
"Guantanamo Bay is just a place, a place that has, admittedly, harmed our country's reputation and whose benefits have come to be arguably outweighed by its costs," said Charles "Cully" Stimson, a senior legal fellow at Heritage and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. "The answer, far beyond closing Guantanamo, is to solve the broader challenge of holding accountable and incapacitating terrorists in a detention framework that is lawful, durable and internationally acceptable."
Obama's plan to close Guantanamo, says Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tracks closely with a report she published last fall, Closing Guantanamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint.
"I didn't get everything I wanted, but I got a lot," she said of the president's plan. The problem? It's in Section 4 (c), she says, where the administration lays out its plan for dealing with detainees who either don't have a country that will accept them or whose cases the government finds "not feasible" to try in federal courts.
Those detainees, the order states, shall be dealt with by "legal means, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice."
That language provides that administration too much wiggle room, says Mendelson, director of the CSIS's Human Rights and Security Initiative. "It's very vague, very legalistic, and leaves the mechanics up to individuals carrying out the review," she said.
And Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to question where the prisoners will go and whether they won't simply return to the terrorism battlefield.
"If [Guantanamo Bay prison] is closed, where will they go, will they be brought to the United States, and how will they be secured?" House Minority Leader John Boehner asked in a statement. "Will they be released by the courts, despite reports that more than 60 former terrorist detainees have already returned to the battlefields to fight us again?"
Whatever is devised, says Romero of the ACLU, "there can be no doubt that all individuals must be charged, tried and convicted, and, if not, they must be released."
"It is not possible under existing laws to find a middle ground," he said.
The important questions about Obama's Guantanamo plan will no doubt play out in coming days and weeks, and both rights activists and Republicans say they are watching closely to see whether their concerns will be heard.
Abortion rights activists are expecting the new president to reverse the so-called Mexico City policy, known as the "global gag rule," that restricts U.S. foreign aid to organizations — including the U.N. Population Fund — that "promote or perform" abortions.
After all, it would stray from tradition if he didn't. The policy was put in place by President Reagan, lifted by President Clinton, and reinstated by President Bush.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, has said that the policy blocks access to services that aid in family planning, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, and preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
"Contrary to anti-abortion distortions and hyperbole, federal law already prohibits any taxpayer funds from covering abortion services," she said in a column Thursday.
But supporters of the Mexico City policy, named for the city where it was established by Reagan, say they believe that overturning the edict would propel Democrats on a path to overturn the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 provision that excludes abortions from procedures covered under the federal Medicaid program.
"This is part of an effort to overturn every single ban on taxpayer funding for abortion," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to get women who oppose abortion active in politics.
During his campaign, then-candidate Obama pledged to overturn President Bush's strict limits on the use of stem cells from destroyed embryos in research on projects that could lead to cures for debilitating diseases.
But in recent days, President Obama has indicated that he may opt to let Congress decide the controversial issue that conservative evangelicals consider tantamount to abortion.
During the Bush years, Democrats have unsuccessfully fought to increase federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, and polls show that a majority of Americans surveyed — as well as a number of influential Republicans like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch — support such research. But the issue has remained a hot potato.
Whether Obama will use his authority to expand the use of embryonic stem cells in research, or keep the issue in Congress — where Democrats from conservative districts would rather avoid it — remains to be seen.
Long term, it's likely that Congress will come up with an on-the-books policy. But many supporters of such research are looking to the president to kick-start their effort.
Activists seeking action on climate change are urging the president to issue an executive order that would require the government to assess how every federal project would affect global warming.
And the administration is said to be looking at issuing an order that would stop a last-minute Bush proposal that would allow the expansion of offshore drilling in areas that have been previously banned, and to block the Interior Department's plan to develop oil shale fields largely found in Utah.
In lifting the 1981-era ban on offshore drilling before he left office, Bush cited high gas prices faced by Americans. Obama has said he wants to keep the ban.
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