Political confessions: A mistake to admit mistakes?

Jeff Greenfield

Suppose the incumbent is facing an unhappy electorate. The change he’d promised four years ago hasn’t materialized, and the hope he’d stirred has curdled. Suppose the incumbent’s top campaign aides are convinced he needs to acknowledge that all has not gone well. What does he do?

If the incumbent is New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and the year is 1969, he sits on the steps of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence, and tapes what came to be known as the “Lindsay Eats Crow” ad. (“Crow” was not the precise substance mentioned.) The ad itself conceded very little, and quickly trumped each mistake with successes.

“I guessed wrong on the weather before the city’s biggest snowstorm last winter,” he began. “And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the street. And that was no mistake. The school strike went on too long, and we all made some mistakes. But I brought 225,000 more jobs to this town. And that was no mistake.”

Lindsay continued: “The things that go wrong are what make this the second toughest job in America. But the things that go right are what make me still want it.”

I reach back not to celebrate the wisdom of Lindsay’s campaign team, of which I was a part. He had the advantages of a city caught up in the New York Mets’ championship run, and of an opponent—City Comptroller Mario Procaccino—who made Rick Perry look like Cicero.

But the comparison raises a question about President Barack Obama’s re-election efforts: Does he need to say to voters, “I’ve made mistakes?” And if so, how does he say it?

Obama has already admitted to some blunders along the way. He told Charlie Rose in a July 16 interview: "The mistake of my first term—couple of years—was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

To put it charitably, this won’t qualify as a mea culpa, since the subtext of this “confessional” is backhanded: “I didn’t figure out how to tell the country what I good job I’ve done.”

But if there is a sense in Obama’s inner circle that confession is good for the political soul, what might he say? (I’m excluding the offerings from his political adversaries, such as: “I’m sorry I thought I could handle the job” or “my apologies for forging my birth certificate and consorting with known terrorists.”)

Could he, for instance, concede that his administration misjudged the severity of the global financial meltdown of September 2008? Others who served him have done so privately and even publicly (see Noam Scheiber’s "The Escape Artist,") arguing that the remedies offered, however enormous, were insufficient to kick start the economy.

Obama hasn’t gone that far, but he did admit, during a July 6, 2011, CBS Twitter townhall, that one of the “two things I would have done differently” includes “preparing people better for how long the [economic] crisis was going to take.” He went on: “I think even I didn’t realize the magnitude, because most economists didn’t realize the magnitude of the recession until fairly far into it.” But still, he’s not saying his strategy was off. In a climate where “stimulus” is the policy that dare not speak its name, it is risky at best to argue: “We should have spent more” (unless you assume that Paul Krugman’s approval is the key to swing voters in Ohio and Florida).

Could he say that, given the severity of the Great Recession, he should have tabled health care until conditions had improved? That’s a difficult course, since health care reform is the signature achievement of his term. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that putting health care aside would have won him more running room to deal with the economy.

Perhaps the most tempting target of opportunity would be for the president to say: “I misjudged the tenor of Washington; I really thought there was room to cross party lines, but I did not see just how intransigent the Republican opposition was”—an oblique way of pointing the finger at Republican obstinacy.

In fact, Obama has tried this. In the same Charlie Rose interview above, the president said: “The one thing that has frustrated me the most over the past four years … is I’ve not been able to change the atmosphere in Washington.” He went on: “I think there’s no doubt that I underestimated the degree to which, in this town, politics trumps problem solving … my expectation was that we would see more cooperation.”

There is meat in this approach. A staunch conservative like Utah Sen. Robert Bennett was denied the chance to run in the GOP primary two years ago for the sin of cooperating with the president. Press accounts detail how caucuses forced Republicans to cease exploring health care and other matters with Democratic colleagues. And it’s hard to misread the famous works of GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell when he said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

The problem for Obama is that, whatever the merits, this “confession” looks to have little political punch. In 2010, voters responded to Republican intransigence by giving the party a historic mid-term election triumph. If polls are any guide, the public seems to have a “plague on both your houses” view, taking it as a matter of faith that both parties are out to hurt the other guy whenever they can; they are not likely to be shocked or outraged that one party set out to derail the agenda of the other guy.

But even more important is the fact that nothing matters more in this election than the economy. Owning up to smaller missteps such as these won’t really matter like it did in Lindsay’s day. This time around, the big issue is the economy and why it isn’t improving. But Obama can’t possibly admit any real economic mistakes or it could spell political suicide. It’s Obama’s misfortune that a relatively minor transgression, like guessing wrong about the weather, won’t be enough to impact voters. The electorate often seems willing to give a “we’re all human” pass to a public official, provided the mistake isn’t egregious enough. But today, given the all-consuming economy issue, voters just don’t care much about those minor mistakes.

After all, it wasn’t John Lindsay, but another New York Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, who offered the most appealing apology ever when he said: “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”