Obama: Ethicist-in-Chief

On Inauguration Day, I raised the issue of just how, or how much, the new President would influence business ethics. I noted that, at least in principle, the President has two mechanisms for doing so: example setting and legislation. On the first full day of his administration, he took a stab at the former.

Here’s Obama’s very first Executive Order: Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel.

Here’s the story of Obama’s first day (with emphasis on the ethics stuff) from the LA Times: President Obama swiftly sets course on Day One

Obama used Day One as well to signal his commitment to a central campaign promise: upending the way Washington does business. He announced tough new restrictions on lobbying activity.

“This is big,” said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University that has challenged Bush administration policies on the release of information. “No president has done so much on the first day in office to make his administration transparent.”

(For more, see this from Bloomberg.com: Obama Freezes Pay, Toughens Ethics and Lobbying Rules.)

Here are the opening paragraphs of the Executive Order:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including section 301 of title 3, United States Code, and sections 3301 and 7301 of title 5, United States Code, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Ethics Pledge. Every appointee in every executive agency appointed on or after January 20, 2009, shall sign, and upon signing shall be contractually committed to, the following pledge upon becoming an appointee:

“As a condition, and in consideration, of my employment in the United States Government in a position invested with the public trust, I commit myself to the following obligations, which I understand are binding on me and are enforceable under law….

These aren’t exactly the kind of inspiring words for which Obama is famous. But that’s to be expected: this is the dull, administrative part of government ethics. The Order is detailed, including a long “Definitions” section, and a number of references to obligations that apply under other federal regulations. (e.g., for guidance on receiving gifts, it points to 2635.203(b) of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations). Of course, orders and regulations can never be sufficiently detailed to obviate the need for judgment. Judgment comes from experience and from understanding the spirit and intention of the regulations. Whether Obama can inspire members of his administration in this regard, the way he inspired voters this past fall, remains to be seen.

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