Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Ipod Government

Cass Sunstein is a collegue of Obama's and also a regular writer for The New Republic, and the other day he wrote a commentary piece for the Chicago Tribune on "The Obama I Know: Terrific Listener Goes Wherever Reason Takes Him." He's also someone who he consulted and acknowledged as a sounding board for his book, The Audacity of Hope. See this blog entry from early February on Obama's entourage.

The article opens with this:
Not so long ago, the phone rang in my office. It was Barack Obama. For more than a decade, Obama was my colleague at the University of Chicago Law School.

He is also a friend. But since his election to the U.S. Senate, he does not exactly call every day.

On this occasion, he had an important topic to discuss: the controversy over President Bush's warrantless surveillance of international telephone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists. I had written a short essay suggesting that the surveillance might be lawful. Before taking a public position, Obama wanted to talk the problem through.

In about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the president's power as commander in chief, the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.

Obama wanted to consider the best possible defense of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened and offered a counterargument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said he thought the program was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time.

This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama's mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal. He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side.

This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years -- a careful and evenhanded analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view.
Other highlights:
  • The Obama we know is no rhetorician; he shines not because he can move people, but because of his problem-solving abilities, creativity and attention to detail.
  • Expect transparency to be a central theme in any Obama administration, as a check on government and the private sector alike. It is highly revealing that Obama worked with Republican (and arch-conservative) Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to produce legislation creating a publicly searchable database of all federal spending.
  • His campaign has spoken of moving toward "iPod government" an effort to rethink public services and national regulations in ways that would make things far simpler and more user-friendly.
  • These are points about policies and substance. As president, Obama would set a new tone in U.S. politics. He refuses to demonize his political opponents; deep in his heart, I believe, he doesn't think of them as opponents. It would not be surprising to find Republicans and independents prominent in his administration.
Check out the full article here.

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