Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mea culpa Obama

It was the kind of media blitz that the best politicians tend to perform when they’re on offense, promoting new legislation or advancing a new policy by carpet-bombing the network anchors with one-on-one interviews. It’s seizure of the high ground, and it often works.

So it was a little unsettling today when President Obama made the rounds of major broadcast and cable networks not as evangelist but as apologizer-in-chief, publicly admitting the latest, and unsettling, mistake in the vetting process for one of the nominees for his Cabinet. Unsettling, but just a little.

Tom Daschle, the former South Dakota senator and Senate Majority Leader, and the president’s choice to head Health & Human Services, took himself out of the running for the position after disclosures of tax improprieties: specifically, not having declared $140,000 of actual or imputed income on his returns. Daschle overlooked paying taxes on income for consulting work and personal use of a car and driver, and improperly deducted charitable contributions. He paid more than $128,000 in back taxes and almost $12,000 in interest last month.

The Daschle disclosure was just the latest in a series of missteps by the usually sure-footed Team Obama. The first occurred over former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama’s first choice to head the Commerce Department. Richardson exited amid a grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors.

Timothy Geithner, tapped to be Treasury Secretary, was also found to be delinquent in paying $34,000 in back taxes, but was confirmed anyway in January.

Nancy Killefer, Obama’s pick for the new position of chief performance officer, withdrew the same day as Daschle, also over tax matters related to domestic help.

This cascade of embarrassments is the kind of thing that would have deeply, visibly disturbed a man of a lesser inner balance. Rather than retreat to official White House statements or weak explanations by the White House press secretary, Obama manned up.

“I think nobody was better equipped to deal both with the substance and policy of health care. [Daschle] understands it as well as anybody, but also the politics, which is going to be required to actually get it done,” Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.

“But I think that, look, ultimately, I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics. And I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people, and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes.”

“I screwed up,” the president of the United States said.

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Obama made similar statements when talking to CBS’ Katie Couric, NBC’s Brian Williams, and to Fox News.

“I’ve got to own up to my mistake. 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,” Obama said on NBC’s Nightly News. “I'm frustrated with myself, with our team. ... I'm here on television saying I screwed up,” Obama said.

There’s a thin line between the forthright and the meretricious; an apology is one of those things that have the potential to get weaker every time it’s expressed. The cynics will say multiple displays of contrition by the president project a sense of weakness. For them, apparently, being president means never having to say you’re sorry.

Give President Obama credit for understanding how a rapid, candid response to a situation gives you a measure of control over the situation. In every interview Obama brandished his imperturbable cool, coming across finally as someone genuinely caught off guard by this latest revelation and determined not to let it happen again. End of story, or pretty damn close.

You could see it in the faces of some of the journalists who interviewed him: a sense of “We’re not quite sure how to take this, this degree of candor in a president.” You can hardly blame them, they haven’t had much practice recently. The nation had nothing like this honesty when dealing with the sclerotic prevaricators of the Bush administration.

For the past eight years we experienced an administration bent on control of not just the message but also the language the message came wrapped in. The country lived through a president who studiously evaded admitting he was ever wrong about anything.

So the full-throated mea culpas of President Obama on what are, when all’s said and done, errors in professional judgment are something we can live with. It’s refreshing to find a president honest enough about himself to admit having been wrong about someone who may not have been honest with him. Change we can believe in begins with a president we can believe.

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