President Obama's Executive Orders: (Mostly) A Good Sign
No longer impeded by his transition principle—"We have only one president at a time"—President Obama hit the ground running the day after his inaugural commitments. And he did so by, among other things, issuing several executive orders—presidential directives consistent with current law and typically issued to officers of the executive branch of the federal government. Most presidents have issued such orders, and like other presidents, President Obama used these early orders (http://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing_room/executive_orders/) to break with policies of his predecessor.
A welcome directive required his political appointees to commit to an unprecedented range of restrictions relative to lobbying (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/ExecutiveOrder-EthicsCommitments/) in and when they leave government. This is the culmination of a variety of rigorous steps he took as a presidential candidate and as president-elect during the transition to try to make at least that part of government over which he has direct control more ethical and less dominated by professional lobbyists.
Another positive sign was several executive orders related to torture and the legal treatment of detainees. President Obama ordered the closure of the detention facilities of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base within a year, (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/ClosureOfGuantanamoDetentionFacilities/) and he ordered the review of the case of each of the 245 individuals still held there. He also appropriately revoked President Bush's Executive Order 13440 in order to ensure that interrogation techniques are restricted to those consistent with the Army Field Manual and Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, as well as other related international treaties.
These, coupled with his order to increase government transparency, are hopeful and just and will likely improve government ethics and our standing in the world.
Unfortunately, President Obama issued an order revoking what has come to be known as the Mexico City Policy (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/MexicoCityPolicy-VoluntaryPopulationPlanning/)—the order first issued by President Reagan, rescinded by President Clinton, and reinstated by President Bush—that required the US Agency for International Development to withhold "funds from NGOs that use non-USAID funds to engage in a wide range of activities, including providing advice, counseling, or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available." This political football seems to be largely that—political. Its biggest effect is the signal it sends to shore up political support from certain liberal groups.
It isn't clear how much real effect this funding has had or will have on fertility or birth rates in the developing world. Most developing countries have restrictive abortion policies, and this small amount of funding targeting pro-choice advocacy efforts will likely do little to change those policies. Unfortunately, some 60,000 to 70,000 women die of unsafe abortions (http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2008/03/11/000333038_20080311075409/Rendered/PDF/427950WP01NO0P1lityRegulationsFinal.pdf) in the world every year. But family planning efforts can substantially reduce that number through better contraception education and easier access to contraception without advocating abortion. If the chief goal is to improve the lives of the poor, the US should channel funding and other resources to governments and NGOs that are working effectively to empower women in the family and in the economy. Low fertility rates in the developing world are strongly related to high levels of education and low levels of poverty. Making access to education and employment easier for women has done and will do much more to depress birth rates in the developing world than easier access to abortion.
One can imagine better executive orders to improve the lives of the poor while both assuring his liberal base he hears them loud and clear and staying the course away from partisan politics.