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The Pros and Cons of Admitting a Presidential Error

Posted by tothewire on February 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — To anyone who has followed politics in Washington in recent years, the image of a sitting president admitting error is a striking shift. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were marked by the resistance of both men to confessing mistakes; Mr. Bush’s advisers long made it clear that he viewed such acknowledgments as akin to admitting weakness.

But there was President Obama on Tuesday night, pleading guilty in a succession of television interviews to mishandling the collapsed nomination of Tom Daschle to his cabinet. “I screwed up,” Mr. Obama said.

To a certain extent, Mr. Obama had little choice but to admit the obvious. Mr. Daschle and Mr. Obama’s nominee to be the chief White House performance officer, Nancy Killefer, had been forced to withdraw in a single day because they had not paid all their taxes, developments that came after Timothy F. Geithner weathered scrutiny of his own tax problems before winning confirmation as Treasury secretary. Republicans suddenly sensed vulnerability in this new president.

Mr. Obama’s advisers said Mr. Obama’s admission was the latest in a series of change-the-tone signals intended to show how this presidency would be stylistically different from that of either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton.

But the episode was revealing for reasons that go deeper than mere style. It reflected concern in Mr. Obama’s top circles that the president and his aides had put at risk a central aspect of his carefully cultivated political image: as the reformer determined to break the rules of Washington. It was hard for Mr. Obama to be chastising Wall Street executives for living by a different set of rules when people he was appointing into government were perceived as doing much the same thing.

“There were two words: not just ‘mistake,’ but ‘responsibility,’ ” Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, said in an interview. “You had a culture here that was pervaded for a while with the sense of anything goes.”

“People like the fact that he said he made a mistake,” Mr. Emanuel said. “They hadn’t heard it from anybody in office for a long time. They heard excuses and denials.”

Yet, there is a reason that prior inhabitants of the office had been loath to admit error, given the way in which such an admission can undercut the power and the mystique of the presidency, a point that Mr. Obama’s own advisers did not dispute.

And Mr. Obama may find that this is not a well that he can return to so easily. Mr. Obama, who little more than four years ago was serving as a state senator in Illinois, has to be particularly careful not to do anything to feed any public concern that he might not be quite ready for this job, which was precisely the argument used against him in the presidential campaign.

And there is another reason previous presidents were reluctant to admit wrongdoing.

“He’s saying the buck stops with him,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a longtime adviser to Mr. Bush. “But, the bucks can start piling up pretty fast on this job if you’re going to take the heat for every miscue.”

Still, Mr. McKinnon said he was struck by what Mr. Obama had done, and thought he had done himself some good.

“It is unusual to have a president genuflecting publicly with apologies so early in the administration,” Mr. McKinnon said. “But I think Obama appeared sincere and humble.”

White House aides said the message the president’s acknowledgment conveyed to them was to avoid political expediency.

“That’s the balance,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “And we probably, in the interest of trying to get our policy goals, lost sight of how important the other piece is — which is, don’t break faith with the principles that he believes in.”

But on Wednesday the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had trouble specifying how the vetting of potential nominees or other big decisions would be changed to reflect the lessons of the previous few days.

“The president doesn’t need to write his staff a memo,” Mr. Gibbs said. “We understand.”


“Clairvoyance,” he said before leaving the podium and returning to his office.



(the above picture was not part of the original post by nytimes)


6 Responses to “The Pros and Cons of Admitting a Presidential Error”

  1. dorian9 said

    my thoughts were, when his critics were so quick to pounce on his admitting to making a mistake was: wow, this is the first president i can remember who was able to say “i made a mistake”. i thought that was very commendable and big of him.


  2. […] The Pros and Cons of Admitting a Presidential Error « A Different … […]


  3. douglaskev said

    im so disappointed by the democrats failing to pay their taxes….

    especially because daschle would have been great for health care


  4. […] The Pros and Cons of Admitting a Presidential Error « A Different … […]


  5. obama the antichrist said

    o yes a man who forgets to pay health care would be a great choice to RUN health care….


  6. obama the antichrist said

    let me clarify a man who forgets to pay health care for someone else he had responsibility for


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