I have neither the knowledge nor expertise to suggest anything about economic and financial policy—the most pressing problems facing the nation—and I don’t share in the millennial fever that has gripped some commentators. So I offer instead a less soaring collection of hopes.
First, I hope that President Obama will find the right tone as well as words to rally the country, to describe the economic difficulties in plain but serious terms, to lay out the choices as he sees them, and to explain what specific actions he will take over the foreseeable future. Every president in times of crisis needs to do this and to do it well; and that’s the hand Obama’s been dealt.
Second, I hope Obama will take a major action that could be completed more or less entirely by executive action—an action of genuinely substantive as well as symbolic importance. One obvious possibility: close the Guantánamo incarceration facility, bring those prisoners deemed dangerous or criminally culpable to the United States, and have them stand trial.
Third, I hope the president will undo Bush’s gutting, by executive order, of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. This gutting, which Bush initiated following the attacks of September 11, 2001, isn’t just a historian’s trade-union issue. The sealing of government documents, Soviet-style, has had a direct impact on continuing events. During the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts’s appointment, important memos from the Reagan years were shielded from public view. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama can begin to reverse the Bush-Cheney reign of secrecy.
Sean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton.