President Barack Obama has been in the news a lot this week, talking to students Tuesday and to the nation about health care Wednesday evening. But a much quieter development concerning the White House deserves to share the spotlight.
The importance of that is clear: The public has a right to know who is influencing the administration. That is not just who might be talking to the president, but also who is spending time with top aides and White House staffers.
The exceptions will be for "purely personal guests" of the first family, names of visitors whose identity would "threaten national security interests" and people attending "particularly sensitive meetings."
It is that last one that has critics concerned. No one really cares if the Obama kids have their best friends for a sleep-over or the first lady's college roommate comes for lunch. And, everyone recognizes the president sometimes has conversations about international, military or intelligence issues that cannot and should not be public or even acknowledged.
But presidents of both parties have kept visitors lists secret for so long that the fear is that almost anything interesting could be labeled a "particularly sensitive meeting." Bill Clinton tried to hide records of how many times Monica Lewinsky visited the White House. George W. Bush fought against releasing the names of industry executives who were part of the energy task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney.
It is easy to see why Clinton and Bush thought those examples were sensitive, but it also is clear the public had a compelling interest in knowing about both. The hope is Obama will not be so secretive and the diligence of the Washington press - and White House critics - will be such that any attempts at hiding names unnecessarily will be found out. The otherwise open nature of the list will aid in that.
It also is the case that no outside agency will monitor the list. As a voluntary policy, managing the names strictly is a White House responsibility. As such, it also is not binding on future presidents.
But if Obama is true to his word about being transparent, to revert to a policy of secrecy the next president would have to take the public step of closing the list. That would be a poor start for a new administration.
Those concerns aside, opening the logs to public scrutiny is a welcome and heartening move. That it came, in part, as a way to settle four Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by a group call Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also reinforced the importance of that legislation.
But choosing openness instead of litigation also reflects well on the administration. As the executive director of the group that sued told The Wall Street Journal, with this action, Obama demonstrated his commitment to transparency "was more than just a campaign promise" and that he "will have the most open White House in history."
That remains to be seen. Presidential paranoia tends to increase with tenure. But Obama certainly has taken a step in the right direction.