Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obama: "I screwed up"

Not long after Tom Daschle withdrew as President Obama's choice to head up HHS and health care reform, the President took responsibility for this latest snafu on himself and told NBC's Brian Williams, "I screwed up."

Obama has been getting widespread praise in the media for taking the hit personally, and many are drawing contrasts with George W. Bush's reluctance to express regret or apologize for mistakes and setbacks of far greater consequence.

I have a contrarian view about this. It's generally a bad idea for Presidents to admit error, at least not until they are out of office and writing their memoirs. Here's why.

A President has many roles. He (or she) is a mere mortal, a politician, the leader of a political party, and the head of an administration. But the President is also the head of state and as such, embodies the American nation. As of January 20th, this unique responsibility descended on Barack Obama. He may feel as if he's the same guy he was on January 19th and wish to speak and act the same way, but he can't.

As President, his words and actions on all matters, great and small, are the words and actions of the United States of America, particularly to foreign governments and people around the world. If Barack Obama is believed -- even mistakenly believed -- to be hesitant, uncertain, inexperienced, error-prone, irresolute or above all not fully in command of his government, friends and enemies abroad will adjust their own attitudes, policies and actions accordingly. It's not just a matter of appearing strong to potential adversaries. Indeed, close allies and friendly nations generally are far more likely (and better able) than enemies to seek ways to take advantage of a moment when the President seems not to be in charge of his own Administration.

This may seem to be a relatively minor incident -- and in some ways it is. But Obama has been President for only two weeks, and the signal he's sending to the world is not only that his Administration is capable of a "screw up," but also that the President himself is at fault and happy to tell the world that he is. What happens when, as is inevitable, there is another screw up? Won't people expect him to take the blame again? And what if it's a mistake of great consequence?

In any case, the truth is that this incident was not Obama's fault personally. It was first and foremost Tom Daschle's fault for not paying his taxes and then not telling the Obama team about his tax problem until after his appointment was announced. It's also the fault of the Obama transition staff people who vetted Daschle and those who supervised the vetting. And it's the fault of the President's political and communications advisors who didn't grasp the impossibility of Daschle's position and give the President smart advice. Frankly, it would have been better for Obama to have leaked that the vetting was inadequate and Obama was furious with some of his staff.

Obama may think that he scores political points for honesty (even if he was not in fact to blame for the screw up), and he has in the very short run. But with his whole Presidency still ahead of him, he should quickly learn that it is really more important for the nation that the President is always master of the ship of state.

What do you think? Post a comment.


  1. I think you are absolutly right. I'm a obama supporter and I think he should only admit to very serious issue of WAR and policies when the country is headed in the wrong direction, then change them for the better of the nation.

  2. That is exactly what I told my American Friend Melvia - who told him to come clean in what was not durrty? How was it that he screwed up? It was the low level employee that should have done their work of vetting properly before the name was announced for the posts that failed?!!!And who is advising him they are making him look like a chump! It was reported in Huffington that NO HE CANT! that he said to the press that if the economic stimulus plan failed he would not run again in 2012. I pray that his adivors are sacked with immediate effect as they have been sent to put a spanner in the works and sabotage!
    Bush failed in 9/11 and you did not hear him say he was gonna shut up shop and not run we could hardly get him to leave the white house!!!!There will of course be backlash from African Americans who will feel that he is only wanting to quit the post with the rug in the white house barely laid- as he is not a descendent of slaves and therefore NOT a partaker of the struggles of the likes of Dr Martin Luther and other African Americans.. Republicans and white supremacist will say something like black folks are weak could not even last a month in the oval office before saying they wanna quit...

    FACT THE ECONOMY IS BROKEN no one can fix it a reality that Republicans have come to accept and just accept . They only want the post to Lord it over all of us..Obamas economic stimulus plan of repairing America is the best plan to move ahead with - what is the point of having trillion $ in the bank and your yard looking like trash heap? Infact the bad weather = jobs guaranteed in all of the states!

    Gods kingdom and Dominion endures for ever.

  3. Thank god we fianally have a leader that will own up to mistakes. This article completely misses the point of why taking responsibility is important. People hate George Bush not just because he "screwed up", but also because he never admitted screwing up in the first place. it really insults the intelligence of a people when they know you made a mistake, you know you made a mistake, and there you are saying everything is just fine. It comes off as unrepentant and arrogant, someone with their head so far up their ass that the feel they can do no wrong. In short, don't piss on me and tell me it's raining. Finally we have a leader that will actually take responsibility for their actions.

  4. Look, it's pretty obvious that this is a HUGE misstep on the part of Obama. You cannot run a campaign on squeaky clean governing and transparency, and then nominate tax cheats to positions of importance in your cabinet. Geithner should have been withdrawn and probably shoudl be asked to step down even now. Obama ran a campaign on the patriotism of paying taxes and a plan to raise taxes as well. There can be no contradictions there. If he believes that to be true, then EVERYONE he nominates should be squeaky clean in that regard.

    He needed to apologize, and I appreciate his candor, but you are overlooking the more egregious action of being interviewed by a foreign news organization and saying that America's policies have been wrong. The immediate effect of that was to send our enemies (N. Korea, Iran, Russia) into cackles of glee, as they recognize that we as a nation are entering four years of apologizing for protecting our people and our interests. Frankly, that is inexcusable.


  5. It's not four years of apologizing, its simply acknowledging a mistake and moving on. Pretending you're right even when youre wrong is not a show of strength, it is a sign of arrogance and ignorance.