Democrats, while George W. Bush was president, took great delight in complaining that Bush refused to admit he had ever been wrong about anything. I thought that was a silly complaint then, and I think it’s a silly complaint now.

That’s why I’m having problems getting worked up about Barack Obama’s answer to CBS News about his worst mistake:

When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. 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.

Via John Sides, who contends that “Obama’s comments better reflect how easy it is for presidents to buy into the myth of their own rhetorical power.”

Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s just the least-bad answer to that kind of question, the way that the least-bad answer to questions about a biggest fault in a job interview is some generally some cleverly disguised version of “gosh I just work too darn hard.”

I don’t know. It’s certainly possible that Obama believes that he’s just not doing a good enough job of “tell[ing] a story,” and that if he improves on that everything will go better. It’s just as possible, however, that it works like this: he can’t deny he’s made any mistakes, because that sounds arrogant and out of touch and, even worse, Bush-like. He doesn’t want to admit any substantive mistakes, because more or less across the board he’s pushing the same policies now as he was then, so he obviously doesn’t think they’re wrong, and even if he does (in cases where the policy has shifted some, such as Afghanistan) he likely doesn’t want to point to policy mistakes that still have bad consequences. That doesn’t leave a lot. One option is the “too late” gambit; he might say for example that his policies were correct in Egypt but that he could have been quicker to adopt them. He could talk legislative strategy, but that’s incredibly boring for normal Americans.

So copping to being a bad salesman is in most cases the best job interview strategy for an incumbent president.

Again — he may really believe it, which wouldn’t be a good thing. But we have plenty of evidence, including the Ronald Reagan quote which John uses, that presidents learn pretty quickly that “tell a story to the American people” doesn’t actually do much.

So while I’d love to hear the president say that his biggest mistake has been in spending too little time on administration and implementation, or failing to place a high enough priority on judicial and executive branch appointments, or in failing to throw everything possible at Judd Gregg to get him out of the Senate and replaced by a Democrat…well, I’m going to suspect judgement on what he actually said until we get a little more evidence that he really means it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.