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.