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Is Admitting Mistakes Good Politics?

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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 5, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
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Duberstein is in an interesting parallel universe. Reagan's pinnacle of taking responsibility for a mistake was after Iran-Contra*. Reagan's admission was that he didn't remember authorizing the decision, but he took responsibility anyway. "If I did it, I don't recall." Perhaps Clinton should have tried that?

* Iran-Contra was when the Oliver North and friends illegally and secretly sold overpriced tactical anti-tank missiles to the Iranians, and then skimmed the profits to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua in opposition to laws passed by congress.

Posted by: boscobobb | February 5, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I would like to suggest that the network anchors deserve to be pilloried for ignoring the nation's REAL PROBLEMS - the economy - and continually being distracted by the titillating issues.

Sure, get to the Daschle story, but don't lead with it!

We have millions of people out of work. Obviously few of the network anchors know anyone who is underemployed, unemployed, in foreclosure or filing for bankruptcy. If they did have those personal relationships, they would be embarrassed to look them in the eye after going on about Daschle - who can't resign again.

Posted by: boscobobb | February 5, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Admitting you were wrong is a sign of confidence and self-awareness. I very much respect that.

We've seen what being incapable of admitting a mistake has done to the country.

Posted by: JCinCT | February 5, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

In a relative sense, Obama towers over W and makes the case for his ability to communicate with the country.
As was pointed out in an earlier post, admission of error is a sign of self confidence and it also shows a level of maturity not seen in American President in some time. Making a mistake is no sin, not learning from the mistake, or repeating the sin is the determining factor here.

Posted by: hadenuff1 | February 5, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

"I would like to suggest that the network anchors deserve to be pilloried for ignoring the nation's REAL PROBLEMS - the economy - and continually being distracted by the titillating issues."

Today, all three networks led with lengthy stories about the airliner that landed in the Hudson River. Last week. Then they got around to talking about the economy and such other boring stuff.

Posted by: thrh | February 5, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

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