On his first day in office, President Obama said the federal government keeps secrets whenever it finds a defensible reason to do so. In his administration, he promised, that will change.

In the coming months, we’ll see if the president keeps his word. When the pressure is on, politicians often forget their commitment to open government.

Still, his words represent a refreshing change from the reflexive secrecy of the last administration. With the new president’s decision to open government records, we may learn a lot more about what the Bush administration concealed from public view.

Whether in Washington or in my hometown, debates about the public’s right to know too often get caught up in legalisms. The fact that government found a legal excuse to conceal information doesn’t make it right. With a handful of exceptions, the people have a right to know what government is doing in their name. Public officials who search for opportunities to withhold information shouldn’t be surprised by the popular cynicism toward government.