|President Barack Obama has reset the nation’s moral compass in his first week in office. Granted much of what he did was rhetorical. He made statements, issued directives and gave interviews. Nonetheless, he struck a new moral direction away from the nation’s failures on torture, global warming and the Islamic world, save one exception.
One moral reboot was Obama’s executive orders to close within a year the American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, ending the way the nation handled terrorism suspects and used torture. Obama’s action said he believed torture was immoral, illegal and ineffective. Human rights and due process returned as core American values.
Another moral restart came in the form of two presidential memoranda related to energy independence and, thereby, climate change. The first directed the Department of Transportation to establish higher fuel efficiency standards for carmakers. The second removed the opposition in Washington to California and other states raising emission standards for cars which, in turn, will reduce greenhouse gases.
“But I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice. America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet,” Obama said. “We will not be put off from action because action is hard. Now is the time to make the tough choices. Now is the time to meet the challenge at this crossroad of history by choosing a future that is safer for our country, prosperous for our planet, and sustainable.”
But perhaps the most memorable line was his direct reversal of the Bush administration’s attitude toward global warming. Obama said, “My administration will not deny facts, we will be guided by them.”
A third moral reboot came in his interview with Al Arabiya, a 24-hour Arabic-language TV news channel. Obama pointed out the bankruptcy of the ideas of the Islamic terrorists. “There’s no action that they’ve taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them,” he said.
“Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” said the president.
“My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives,” he said. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”
In his first Saturday in the White House, Obama gave the traditional weekly presidential address to the nation, focusing on his recovery plan. He acknowledged the skepticism about the plan’s size and scale.
He promised “unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my administration accountable for these results. We won’t just throw money at our problems—we’ll invest in what works. Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made public, and informed by independent experts whenever possible. We’ll launch an unprecedented effort to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government, and every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars.”
Such a promise is much needed. It is also more of the same boilerplate-talk from Washington.
Even as Obama was claiming to change the politics in Washington, he was practicing there the politics as usual. Obama signed an acclaimed executive order that bars lobbyists from working in his administration at agencies that they had lobbied. A few days later, he made an exception to his ban. He allowed a Pentagon lobbyist to take a senior post at the Pentagon.
Obama’s moral reboot had a system failure.
Biblical realism warns us against moral perfectionism. Not every reboot will work. Not every promise will be kept. Not every administrative action will be transparent. Not everyone will be held accountable.
Nevertheless, Obama did successfully reboot the nation’s moral compass in his first week in office.
Let’s hope that he will tip the scales in favor of justice and moral reformation in coming weeks as he did in week one.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.