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A Code of Ethics for President-Elect Obama


Here are some guidelines to keep America's new leader on track as he tackles some daunting tasks

The most heated, high-stakes, and divisive Presidential election in recent memory is now over, and on Jan. 20, 2009, the U.S. will welcome Barack Obama as our next President. Even the most diehard Republicans would have to agree that President-Elect Obama ran an outstanding campaign, but Obama's greatest challenges lie ahead: preventing our teetering economy from collapsing, ending a war that most U.S. citizens believe has gone on for far too long, helping more than 40 million uninsured Americans get the health care they need, improving an education system that has long been in disarray, and many more seemingly insurmountable tasks.

To assist Obama in this monumental undertaking, I humbly propose the following code of ethics. Ethical guidelines act as a kind of global positioning system to help us stay on track and, when we get lost, to get back to where we should be. The rules here are based on the principles of ethics (BusinessWeek.com, 1/11/07) that are common to all cultures, all civilized societies, and all religions. Obama, and most of the rest of us, know these rules well, but it can be far too easy to forget about them or put them to the side when it's convenient. There is no better time for a refresher course for our next Commander-in-Chief than as he prepares to assume the Presidency.

1. DO NO HARM.

It isn't just doctors who have an ethical obligation to "first, do no harm." All of us, including (or especially) the President, have such a responsibility. Indeed, it is the most fundamental ethical concept of all, since no society can survive for long if its members willfully inflict damage on other people and suffer no consequences for doing so. Before signing any bill into law or proposing any policy to the public, Obama should ask: "What harm is likely to come from this and how can we avoid it?" Of course, there are circumstances, such as war, in which it is impossible to avoid causing harm. In these situations, the President should seek to minimize harm that is unavoidable.

2. KEEP YOUR PROMISES.

This seems obvious to the point of triviality, but cynical voters (and perhaps those disappointed by the outcome) are already braced for the President-Elect to overlook some of the promises he made on the campaign trail. It's hard to blame the public for such cynicism, since all Presidents to date have either failed to honor at least some of the pledges they made or, as was the case with George H.W. Bush's "no new taxes" pledge, have intentionally broken them. Obama has made a lot of promises, and it is unlikely that he can keep them all, but he should do his level best to keep his word and, when he can't, to explain why.

3. TELL THE TRUTH.

As I've noted previously, Warren Beatty's film Bulworth (BusinessWeek.com, 4/17/08) was a satire based on the apparently ridiculous notion that a politician would dare to speak his mind. But why should honesty in politics be the stuff of comedy? Much has been made of the current Administration's history of playing fast and loose with the truth, but Democratic and Republican Presidents alike have failed to take the duty of veracity seriously. Yes, national security issues sometimes demand that the President not be forthcoming about strategy, but except in such rare circumstances, the President has an obligation to be open and honest.

4. PROTECT PRIVACY.

It is no secret that, for the past eight years, Americans have had their right to privacy compromised significantly. In the name of "winning the war on terror," the government has engaged in wiretapping, has had unfettered access to phone records and e-mails, and more. It is reasonable to question whether such violations of personal privacy are indeed justified.

There are times when our national interest allows, or even requires, the government to obtain private information, but the President cannot be cavalier in sanctioning such actions. President-Elect Obama would do well to remember that freedom for citizens means, in part, freedom from having to worry that our government will be snooping around our computers, phones, and workplaces without having a strong and compelling reason to do so.

5. MANAGE YOUR TIME.

Time management is usually presented as a strategic or organizational concern, but at its core, it is really an ethical one. Time spent on one thing is time that can't be spent on something else, so this valuable resource must be apportioned wisely and fairly (BusinessWeek.com, 2/8/07). After all, in a democracy, the President's time is really our time, and we're entitled to expect that he (or, someday, she) focus on the most pressing concerns. How Obama chooses to spend his time will say a lot about him and his commitment to fairness.

6. APOLOGIZE WHEN APPROPRIATE.

It's a sign of strength, not weakness, for anyone, including a President, to say: "I made a mistake," and to take steps to remedy the situation (BusinessWeek.com, 6/21/07). But when was the last time this actually happened? President-Elect Obama has way too much to live up to, and we should expect him to fail—perhaps even spectacularly so—from time to time. The ethical issue is not whether he will slip up but how he will respond when he does. By taking full responsibility for mistakes in his own judgment, or by those under his watch, he'll be setting a good example for everyone. Most of all, he'll simply be doing the right thing.

7. BE COMPASSIONATE.

Politicians often say: "We're a nation of laws," but we're much more than that. We're a nation of human beings, and the law does not—and cannot—demand that we treat one another with loving kindness (BusinessWeek.com, 2/22/07). But ethics can, and it behooves the President to demonstrate this consistently. Just as a CEO's behavior sets the standard for all employees to follow, the President's conduct either inspires or discourages citizens. Yes, a President is as fallible as the rest of us, but Obama is in a special position to make a positive difference in the world, and the most powerful way to do this is to act with compassion in all that he does. Compassion isn't the only important character trait one can possess, but it's the key to solving problems peaceably.

May President-Elect Obama find the courage to live by these rules every day, no matter how great the obstacles are. May we be inspired to do the same.


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