WASHINGTON — “I wish that we had come back with better news from Copenhagen,” President Barack Obama said a few weeks ago after an unsuccessful trip across the ocean to try to snag the 2016 Summer Olympics for Chicago.
It wasn’t the kind of happy spin that politicians typically come up with after a failure.
Call it a breath of fresh air or a turnoff. Either way, the man in the Oval Office is making a habit of confessing, apologizing, revealing and regretting.
Don’t mistake it: Team Obama doesn’t miss many chances to try to put its actions in a favorable light. The president’s frank talk turns out to dovetail nicely with that effort. It’s a tool he uses to lessen negative fallout from bad news by pre-empting criticism and draining energy from controversy.
Still, it’s also a genuine Obama personality trait, all the more notable because his predecessor, George W. Bush, was parodied for a reluctance even to utter the word “mistake.”
When Bush was asked at a 2004 news conference to name his biggest error since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he puffed out his cheeks, stammered and stalled, and then ventured: “I’m sure something will pop into my head.” If it did, he didn’t choose to share it.
There is a long tradition of presidents and their aides taking a hands-off “mistakes were made” approach in the blame game.
With Obama, though, it was apparent that “I was wrong” comes easier.
Just days into Obama’s presidency, when former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination to be Obama’s health secretary because of tax problems. Obama served up a round of “I screwed up” apologies.
He apologized again six weeks later for his wisecrack on NBC’s “Tonight” show that his lousy bowling score was “like the Special Olympics or something.” Before the show had even aired, Obama called Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver to say he was sorry.
In July, it took Obama less than a day to turn contrite about his remark that police in Cambridge, Mass., had “acted stupidly” in arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. The president didn’t go all the way to an apology, but did offer that he “could’ve calibrated those words differently.”
Obama has offered a public critique of his own ability to make a clear case for overhauling the health care system. He’s said he needs to “step up my game” in that area. “That’s been a case where I have been humbled,” the president said last month.
The president styles his willingness to admit mistakes as “part of the era of responsibility,” as he put it on the day of the Daschle debacle.
Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies presidential rhetoric, said it’s not just “touchy-feeling confessionalism” but a reflection of Obama’s belief that progress happens incrementally, through trial and error.
Fields said it represents a shift not just from Bush’s certainty but from a string of recent presidents.
How it sits with the public may hinge on Obama’s political fortunes more generally, as was true for Bush’s no-apologies approach.
When Bush “was high in the polls, people thought it was charming and when he wasn’t high in the polls it was evidence that he wasn’t up to the job,” said George Edwards, a Texas A&M University political science professor.
Striking the right balance can be challenge, Fields said.
“We want it both ways,” he said. “We want a leader that’s humble and certain. We want a leader who is learning but gets it right every time.”
Obama’s candor includes not just contrition but also coarse and casual language.
When the health care debate turned ugly in August, Obama said there was “something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up.” (Just saying that got Washington “all wee-weed up” all over again.)
Then there was Obama’s reference to Kanye West as a “jackass” after the rapper’s ill treatment of country singer Taylor Swift.
Obama caught surprisingly little flak for cursing about West, in part because he thought his comment was off the record. But even Obama’s open admissions as a candidate that he had used drugs in his youth, a topic that has given many politicians fits, didn’t seem to hurt.
Obama’s blunt talk about the country’s actions rather than his own conduct has generated more concern.
Humbling America before the world is trickier territory, reflected in the more careful rhetoric Obama has used abroad.
On Obama’s first trip through Europe as president, he repeatedly said the United States deserved a big share of responsibility for a host of problems — not aggressively tackling climate change and financial excesses that sparked the global economic crisis, among others.
“There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” he said at a French town hall in April.
In his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo in June, Obama said the U.S. deserves much of the blame for this “time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
He’s referred to past U.S. interrogation practices as torture and called the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “a mess” that undermines American values.
Admitting some degree of U.S. culpability may be necessary to gain other nations’ cooperation, Edwards said.
But “it doesn’t mean Sean Hannity won’t go berserk at every opportunity,” he added, referring to the Fox commentator who regularly fans conservative flames against Obama.
Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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