Obama Takes the Reins

12/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

--Gerald Ford, 1974

When Obama took to the victory dais, that's the quote that came to mind, though it's not at all what President-elect Obama said or implied. The zenith of Obama's amazing journey and its symbolism for African-Americans brought many to tears. Notwithstanding the historic proportions of Obama's achievement, I couldn't help but to hear the echoes of President Ford.

Obama's victory ends the nightmare of the last eight years of the Bush Era, during which time the rule of law has taken a back seat to self-interest and aggrandizement of power. Ford's address to the nation came after the revelations of Nixon's breach of trust, which led to his impending impeachment and resignation. It was an effort to heal the wounds imposed by the abuse of power and the divisiveness and embarrassment of an administration gone awry. Nixon's White House Counsel John Dean has called the Bush years "worse than Watergate," and indeed they were. Had Nixon been handed the cataclysmic event of 911, he too may have been able to remain in office without the stain of impeachment.

But 911 is not an excuse and Congress should not be let off the hook for allowing the last eight years of executive power to go unchecked. The election of a stronger Democratic majority in Congress shows that the people have spoken. Obama's victory is not only about policy and overcoming the obstacles of race; it's also about power and the obstacles that should stand in the way of accumulating it.

When Obama takes the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, however, he is not likely to spend his hard-earned political capital on prosecuting the crimes and misdemeanors of the administration that preceded him, regardless of the worthiness of the cause. The ruin that greets president-elect Obama at the door to the White House extends way beyond the rose garden. From China to Chile, from Iraq to Indonesia, from Alaska to Alabama, the legacy of problems that await the new president are disproportionate to anything seen in the last century, perhaps ever in our history. Looking back is not what Obama is going to do; he has already told us that.

This election proved that the power resides in the people. Obama will be looking ahead, figuring out how to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Bush. So it will be up to we the people to look at the past and make sure that those elected to Congress fulfill their obligation to restore the balance of power, whoever the executive. In times of crisis, we cannot again allow our leaders to exploit our fears. Congress must keep a check on the kind of power that Bush so deftly plucked out of the fear of 911 and then handily took for granted as his right. We must rout out the tentacles of tyranny that were growing in the executive branch and hold to account those who so abused that power and the public trust.

While Bush liked to talk about accountability he never for a moment thought it applied to him and his minions, who were always above the law. We must inoculate against the idea that the power of government includes the power to grant itself immunity from the law; or that government officials can simply rewrite the laws in order to immunize themselves, whether by executive decree, signing statement, or ex post facto act of Congress. The virus of disrespect that has run rampant in the Bush Administration must be eradicated. The injection of hope alone is not enough to kill the disease that has spread through the system.

What is needed is something similar to the Truth Commission that was set up after Mandela's historic election in South Africa. The danger of repeating the Bush march toward tyranny cannot be shoved under the rug in exchange for domestic tranquility. We cannot become complacent. This is not a trivial matter; nor is it retribution.

As important as it is, this is not a job for Obama. He is not the one who can and will lead this difficult charge. We the people must take seriously the restoration of government accountability. It is as much a responsibility as that of voting. A return to apathy is not an option. As the newly elected Democrats in Congress celebrate their victory and look forward to larger majorities and leadership that is inclusive and open, they can't at the same time bury the crimes by burying the hatchet. No president should ever be under the impression that the people will not rise up in protest when their trust is broken.

Millions of Americans in the last five or more years tried to get a deaf Congress to perform their duty under the Constitution and open hearings into the Bush crimes and misdemeanors. A movement to pressure Congress, where the balance needs to be restored, must continue. Liberty must not rest with the hopes of one man; it must reside in the people.

The bells that ring now resound with Obama's refrain of "yes we can." That spirit must be applied broadly. We must relegate truthiness to comedy and satire where it belongs and exchange it for truth. It is up to us to petition Congress, to make sure that we are never held hostage in our own country, to bring to justice those who have secreted away their deeds in the process of amassing their power. Joe the plumber, the symbol of all that was wrong with the McCain campaign, compared Obama with Sammy Davis, Jr., the popular and talented entertainer of the 60s whose book, Yes I Can, Joe probably wasn't aware of. Obama has continued to say that his candidacy was always about "we," and it is we who need to restore democracy by pressuring Congress to do the right thing.