This week President Obama did something unprecedented…he took responsibility for a terrible mistake that took the lives of two good men.
But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.
In some ways, that echoes what he said at the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Selma.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
Of course, the events he was commemorating at that time didn’t happen on his watch. So the personal burden wasn’t as heavy.
But I was reminded of another time when President Obama’s administration made a mistake and he stepped right up to take responsibility. It was when the rollout of healthcare.gov was such a disaster. Here’s what he said then:
…there are going to be ups and downs during the course of my presidency. And I think I said early on when I was running – I am not a perfect man, and I will not be a perfect President, but I’ll wake up every single day working as hard as I can on behalf of Americans out there from every walk of life who are working hard, meeting their responsibilities, but sometimes are struggling because the way the system works isn’t giving them a fair shot.
And that pledge I haven’t broken. That commitment, that promise, continues to be – continues to hold – the promise that I wouldn’t be perfect, number one, but also the promise that as long as I’ve got the honor of having this office, I’m just going to work as hard as I can to make things better for folks…
I make no apologies for us taking this on – because somebody sooner or later had to do it. I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months.
At the time, I remember thinking that was one of the most courageous things I’d ever seen a president do. And now, under even more somber circumstances, he’s done it again.
Some people think that our exceptionalism as a country comes from being better than everyone else and focusing only on the positive. Admitting mistakes certainly makes us vulnerable. But pretending to be perfect is nothing but a lie. And it robs us of both the ability to learn from our mistakes and to embrace the kind of humility that opens the door to empathy for others.
President Obama has been willing to put his ego aside, admit when he’s been wrong, and make a determined effort to learn from those mistakes. Those are the kinds of lessons that we – as individuals – need to learn. But they also apply to how we go about “perfecting our union.”