Is Admitting Mistakes Good Politics?

By Dan Froomkin
1:05 PM ET, 02/ 5/2009

I wrote yesterday about President Obama's unusually frank admission that he "screwed up" in nominating two people with tax problems to key positions in his administration.

Walter R. Mears writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama may not be able to change the ingrained ways of Washington, but he's already changed the language. Presidents have screwed up before. None has confessed to it so candidly, if at all."

David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News: "The question, observers say, is whether Obama's concession succeeded in getting his administration beyond the furor.

"The early signs Wednesday must have pleased the White House - most of the buzz out of the capital was about Obama's push to cap the salaries of Wall Street fat cats who take taxpayer bailout money...

"'I think it was smart politics for Obama to put it on his shoulders, because the American people like to like their President,' said Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former chief of staff. 'It was very humanizing.'"

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "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."

Nagourney writes that Obama "has to be particularly careful not to do anything to feed any public concern that he might not be quite ready for this job."

The Las Vegas Sun editorial board writes: "Americans are a forgiving people, particularly when their leaders own up to their mistakes. With these distractions behind him, we believe Obama will be able to move forward with the important work that lies ahead."

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