When Mistakes Are Made

By Dan Froomkin
2:16 PM ET, 02/ 4/2009

What does a president do after he makes a mistake? The answer to that question is hugely telling, both psychologically and politically.

President Obama, apparently, has a dramatically different approach than his immediate predecessor.

We drill into our children -- with stories about young presidents, no less -- that admitting mistakes is a fundamental hallmark of honesty. But it's not really something we've grown to expect of our leaders.

All the way to the bitter end of his presidency, George Bush refused to acknowledge any errors in judgment beyond a few public-relations gaffes. The few substantive mistakes he admitted -- such as taking the country to war on incorrect intelligence -- he blamed on others.

The Bush approach, generally credited to Karl Rove, was never to apologize for anything -- and instead to simply bluster on through. The idea, presumably, was that admitting mistakes makes a president look weak. And Rove in particular was adamant about never giving critics, political opponents or the press the satisfaction of seeing the president on the defensive.

On a case-by-case basis, this strategy mostly worked, and negative stories blew over more quickly than they might have otherwise. But over time, Bush's detachment from reality seriously eroded his credibility.

Obama last night -- on five networks, no less -- announced to the world that he had screwed up when it came to backing two nominees who had failed to properly pay their taxes. Would-be health czar Thomas A. Daschle and would-be government-spending watchdog Nancy Killefer both stepped aside yesterday in the face of growing concern over Obama's apparent retreat from his pledge to bring about a "new era of responsibility."

"I'm here on television, saying I screwed up," Obama told NBC's Brian Williams (above). "And that's part of the era of responsibility. It's not never making mistakes; it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them and that's what we intend to do."

And rather than duck the issue, Obama acknowledged precisely what was so disturbing about what he had done. "I've got to own up to my mistake which is that, ultimately, it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules -- you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."

But taking the high road is not always the path to success in Washington. And the practical test of Obama's approach versus Bush's will come as we see the response in the coming days, first inside the Beltway, and then outside.

Can a politician get credit in this day and age for admitting a mistake? Or is it instead first blood for a rapacious political and media culture?

From Obama's interview with ABC News's Charlie Gibson:

Gibson: "Mr. President, has this been an embarrassing day for the administration?"

Obama: "Well, I think it has. I mean, I think that any time one of your nominees pulls out, that's an issue. And, you know, as I've said publicly, you know, ultimately, I take responsibility for the situation that we're in. But what I also think is important is to stay focused on the overarching theme of this administration, which is making sure that we get this economy back on track, that we provide health care for people who are in desperate need of it....

"We're going to have some glitches, and I understand that that's what people are going to focus on. And I'm focused on it because I don't want glitches. We can't afford glitches because, right now, what I should be spending time talking to you about is how we're going to put three to four million people back to work. And so this is a self-induced injury that I'm angry about, and we're going to make sure we get it fixed."

As CBS's Katie Couric pointed out (here's the transcript and video of her interview) Obama had hoped to focus on his economic stimulus package in his barrage of interviews.

But as Obama acknowledged: "Well, this is the problem when you make these self-inflicted wounds, you end up being distracted really from the people's business."

Fox News's Chris Wallace (transcript and video) grilled Obama on a larger issue: his less than perfect adherence to his pledge not to bring lobbyists into his administration.

Wallace: "On your first day in office, you signed an executive order on lobbyists...that you said marked a, quote, 'clean break' with business as usual. And yet, in less than two weeks, you have signed waivers to allow the hiring of lobbyists to be deputy secretary at the Pentagon, deputy secretary at HHS, and chief of staff at the treasury. Is that a clean break?"

Obama: "Well, that's three out of hundreds of appointments that we've made."

Wallace: "Three of the top jobs. Three really important jobs."

Obama: "But let me say this, Chris. We disclosed these ahead of time. We set a very high bar. And everybody acknowledges that we have the toughest standards, not only of people who have lobbied previously, and the restrictions on them working in this White House, but also going forward.

"And those rules will still apply, even for Mr. Lynn, who had some unique qualifications that I felt was important to America's national security. Even he is going to have to not be engaged in lobbying for two years -- or for the duration of my administration.

"And so, look, is every approach that we're taking here going to be perfect? No. Have we set a very high bar, higher than any president who's ever been in this office? And are we generally meeting that very high standard? I think the answer is absolutely yes."

Here's the transcript and video of Obama's interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Obama officials had sought a seamless transition, nominating most of his Cabinet at record pace and taking office ready to implement a raft of new policies. His reversal yesterday suggested that speed may have come at a cost, and that Obama, despite the overwhelming popularity he had upon taking office and the major challenges facing the nation, will not be spared from the same kind of scrutiny his predecessors have faced.

"In jettisoning one of his closest and earliest political allies, the president appeared eager to make a course correction after days of criticism that his administration was not abiding by its own stated ethical standards and questions about his ability to bring change to the capital....

"Daschle's withdrawal came as a jolt to the administration, serving as a rebuke to Obama officials who had privately and publicly brushed aside the idea that personal tax issues would reach a boiling point. Senior officials had insisted that the public was too concerned with the ongoing economic collapse to fixate on the foibles of the people being marshaled to try to set the nation back on course....

"The abrupt move stands to potentially dent the reputation for steadiness and managerial prowess that the 47-year-old president had cultivated over a smoothly run campaign and a transition to power that boasted of a swift vetting and nomination of top aides."

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Daschle, a closer confidant to Mr. Obama than any other cabinet nominee, had offered to step down over the weekend, but officials close to both men said Mr. Obama had urged him to fight for confirmation.

"Mr. Daschle went to Capitol Hill on Monday to keep his confirmation on track, but by Tuesday morning, with the pressure showing no signs of easing, he told the president that he believed he had become a distraction and too wounded to be effective...

"The developments distracted attention from Mr. Obama’s effort to push his economic stimulus plan through the Senate and complicated the initiative that Mr. Daschle was to have led, his plan for overhauling the health care system."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In only his second week in office, Barack Obama is punching the restart button on his presidency.

"On Tuesday, Day 14 of a tenure that began with high hopes and soaring promises of bringing a new competence to Washington, Obama essentially admitted that he had lost ground in confronting his biggest challenge -- fixing the country's crippled economy -- due to the 'self-inflicted injury' of naming appointees who had failed to pay their taxes....

"The tax problems were damaging Obama's arguments in the stimulus debate -- and were potentially damaging to his ability to push for other difficult legislation, including the healthcare reforms that Daschle was to shepherd through Congress. The White House was left open to attacks such as the one from a top GOP leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who said over the weekend that it was no wonder Democrats push for higher taxes 'because, you know what, they don't pay them.'

"The events are not a defeat for Obama and his legislative priorities, but they do mark a significant reversal of fortune."

Mimi Hall, Fredreka Schouten and John Fritze write in USA Today: "It was a disquieting day for a president who came into office with soaring approval ratings and a promise to have the most ethical administration in history....

"In Congress and on cable talk shows Tuesday, questions about the new administration dominated the day. Among them: Should Obama's self-described mistakes be attributed to the usual growing pains of a new White House, or do they underscore a fundamental weakness that could have ramifications for future appointments and legislation at a critical time?"

The Associated Press's Calvin Woodward notes all the mea culpas on the evening news and writes: "The White House approaches each day with talking points but none like this one....

"The audacity of acknowledging — even emphasizing — poor judgment came in marked contrast to his predecessor. George W. Bush pronounced himself stumped when asked, midway through his presidency, to name mistakes he'd made."

Lynn Sweet blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times: "The Daschle episode provided another vivid demonstration of the Obama MO: Faced with a fixable, damaging crisis, his advisers prefer to cut their losses, take the PR hit and try to move ahead."

Josh Gerstein and Jonathan Martin write for Politico: "George W. Bush was reluctant to admit any mistakes in eight years.

"It took Barack Obama just 14 days. And once he started Tuesday, he didn’t stop....

"Tax problems come and go in Washington, just like dinged-up nominees. But Obama seemed to sense Tuesday that Daschle was different, much more serious — a true threat to Brand Obama that opened him up to charges of hypocrisy..

"And he didn’t even try to talk anyone out of the conventional wisdom — that Daschle and his free limo rides were like the living repudiation of everything Obama campaigned on for two years.

"Instead, he tried to get one message across with the force of his contrite words — that he really did mean what he said when he ran for president about cleaning up the capital."

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