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Obama, Bush and Presidential Infallibility

January 28, 2010

Barack Obama's first State of the Union address last night was a needed reminder that Americans elect presidents and not popes. Throughout a speech which was well received by viewers for both style and substance, Obama acknowledged his failures. But if his language about "so much disappointment" and "deserved" political "setbacks" seemed unusual coming from the President of the United States, that's because it is. After eight years of George W. Bush's pretense of infallibility, Americans simply aren't used to hearing from a president with the courage to own up to his mistakes.
Perhaps the purest expression of President Bush's "admit no mistakes" mantra came during a press conference in April 2004. A year after his invasion of Iraq produced a growing insurgency, mounting U.S. casualties, no weapons of mass destruction and a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," a stammering President Bush could not think of a single mistake he had made during his tenure in the White House:

"I'm sure something will pop into my head here...maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

But by January 2007, just days after he announced the surge in Iraq, Bush admitted to Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes that he had made mistakes, if only semantic ones:

PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?
BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, "bring them on" was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.

Amazingly, Bush's most profound statement of regret about his tough talk came (despite Dana Perino's claim to the contrary) in June 2008. In London as part of his final swing through Europe before leaving the White House, President Bush told The Times of London that his cowboy rhetoric was perhaps his greatest regret:

President Bush has admitted to The Times that his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe that he was a "guy really anxious for war" in Iraq.
[...] In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric."
Phrases such as "bring them on" or "dead or alive", he said, "indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace."

To be sure, George W. Bush had a lot to apologize for when it came to his use of phrases like "bring 'em on." As a grieving Mary Kewatt told Minnesota Public Radio in June 2003:

"We have some issues with the fact that President Bush declared combat over on May 1. Combat is not over. We don't even know who's firing at us right now, and all of our soldiers are at great risk of being picked off as Jim was. And that's a shame. And then President Bush made a comment a week ago, and he said, 'bring it on.' They brought it on and now my nephew is dead."

Throughout his tenure in the White House, Bush evaded accountability for errors large and small. On no issue was this more on display than on the war in Iraq. After, President Bush's response to collapse of his primary rational for the war against Saddam was to joke about the absence of weapons of mass destruction. David Corn recalled Bush's performance at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, in which the Comic-in-Chief regaled the audience with his White House hijinx:

Bush notes he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn't the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.

And to the very end, President Bush (along with his Republican allies) continued to perpetuate the myth of Saddam's link to Al Qaeda and 9/11. During his jaw-dropping December 15, 2008 interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz. The President wasn't merely content to ignore the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's conclusion that Al Qaeda and Iraq had no "operational relationship." Boasting that "there have been no attacks since I have been president, since 9/11," the President simply dismissed any criticism that it was only his 2003 invasion which brought Al Qaeda forces to Iraq:

BUSH: One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take -
RADDATZ: But not until after the U.S. invaded.
BUSH: Yeah, that's right. So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they're going to take a stand. Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand.

In sharp contrast, President Obama from the very beginning made clear he would uphold a much different - and higher - standard of accountability. In February 2009, Obama acknowledged the vetting problems that led to two of his high profile nominees (Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer) to withdraw over tax problems. As he told NBC's Brian Williams:

"I'm here on television saying I screwed up, 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." He also offered one more mea culpa: "[S]o, did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely and I'm willing to take my lumps, you know that's part of the job here."

In April, a "furious" President Obama reacted to the Air Force One photo-op fiasco in New York by proclaiming, "It was a mistake, as was stated, and it will not happen again." Days later, Louis Caldera, the official responsible for the episode, resigned. (He did not receive a presidential medal.)
And addressing Congress last night, President Obama recognized the "cynicism" and "disappointment" that the change he promised has not come fast enough:

"Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going -- what keeps me fighting -- is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people, that lives on."

That's a far cry from George W. Bush's near-papal doctrine of infallibility. As for the impact of his unacknowledged mistakes on the American people who elected him, it was his wife First Lady Laura Bush who in 2007 perhaps described it most succinctly:

"No one suffers more than their President and I do."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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