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Obama admission of mistake rare for presidents

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidents do not like to admit mistakes. They see it as a sign of weakness. That is why it was noteworthy that Barack Obama publicly admitted making a mistake only two weeks after taking power.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about business CEO's compensation in the White House in Washington February 4, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama’s slang admission that “I screwed up” in pushing ahead with Tom Daschle as U.S. health care chief despite a controversy over unpaid taxes was a sign of the new style he brings to the White House.

The last president, George W. Bush, struggled to identify a mistake when given an opportunity to list some at a 2004 news conference. It was only when he was exiting the White House after eight years that he was comfortable naming several.

Presidents rarely admit errors “because they think they’re right. It’s pretty simple,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College.

Sometimes an admission of a mistake can help a president clear the air after making a bad stumble.

John Kennedy’s 1961 acceptance of responsibility over the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was welcomed by Americans, as was Ronald Reagan’s 1987 acknowledgment that “serious mistakes were made” in the Iran-contra affair.

But Richard Nixon’s baritone insistence that “I am not a crook” over the Watergate scandal did not stop his political slide and Bill Clinton’s finger-waving claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” became a public laughingstock.

“It’s more important to admit mistakes than to make them,” said presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University. “That’s what people are looking for, and how you do it, and if you do it fast and honorably.”

Obama’s admission of guilt, a mea culpa he played out over the course of five back-to-back television interviews on Tuesday, put an end to the worst day of his young presidency, and allowed him to refocus attention on his efforts to revive the gasping U.S. economy.


It may have been part of a learning curve for the former senator from Illinois.

“Obama comes to the White House literally with no executive experience,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “He’s never been in charge of anything before. And now he’s in charge of the most important office in the world, so there’s bound to be mistakes.”

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, said there are reasons presidents try to avoid admitting mistakes -- because political opponents can use them against him.

“If you admit a mistake 10 different times, the Republicans will raise the question, ‘Is Obama’s whole administration a mistake?’” Brinkley said.

For the past two weeks Americans have seen the 47-year-old president adjust to the mantle of power and are getting familiar with a more relaxed style than that of Bush.

Bush insisted any man in the Oval Office had to be wearing a coat and tie and stuck to his schedule with military precision.

Obama has shed the coat for shirtsleeves, did an NBC interview in an open-necked shirt and no necktie. He frequently runs a few minutes late.

Where Bush surrendered email to avoid having his electronic musings compiled as presidential documents, Obama has clung fiercely to his BlackBerry to stay in touch with top aides and close friends although not to conduct official business.

Brinkley said the admission of a mistake may well be seen in the context of a new president, who brings members of the opposite political party into his Cabinet and seeks political consensus even at the risk of angering members of his own party, as he has been doing on the more than $800 billion economic stimulus plan.