Obama Says What Bush Couldn’t: “I Screwed Up”


President Obama hit the networks last night for some serious self-flagellation. As an example, here he is talking to NBC’s Brian Williams (via Pamela Leavey):

“I’ve got to own up to my mistake. Ultimately, it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules — you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”

“I’m frustrated with myself, with our team. … I’m here on television saying I screwed up.”

He repeated the sentiment on the other networks as well. It got MoJo’s DC office to thinking — did former President Bush ever own up to a mistake in similar fashion? In a 2004 town hall debate with John Kerry, Bush famously ducked a question about his biggest errors in office. Here’s the transcript of that moment, in all of its mealy-mouthed glory:

LINDA GRABEL: President Bush, during the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it. Thank you.

BUSH: I have made a lot of decisions, and some of them little, like appointments to boards you never heard of, and some of them big.

And in a war, there’s a lot of — there’s a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say: He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have made that decision. And I’ll take responsibility for them. I’m human.

But on the big questions, about whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan, the big question about whether we should have removed somebody in Iraq, I’ll stand by those decisions, because I think they’re right.

That’s really what you’re — when they ask about the mistakes, that’s what they’re talking about. They’re trying to say, “Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?” And the answer is, “Absolutely not.” It was the right decision…

Now, you asked what mistakes. I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I’m not going to name them. I don’t want to hurt their feelings on national TV. [LAUGHTER]

But history will look back, and I’m fully prepared to accept any mistakes that history judges to my administration, because the president makes the decisions, the president has to take the responsibility.

As for three instances where he made a mistake, Bush came up with… zero. I ran a quick Lexis Nexis search for more evidence. In all American press coverage in the last nine years, there does not appear to be a single instance of Bush saying the words “I screwed up.” Even after indisputable failures, like the lack of WMD in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, Bush was always loathe to say he was sorry.

Bush did issues a few apologies while in office, though, some big and some small. After the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, Bush said he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” In 2007, he apologized to soldiers who had to suffer through substandard conditions at Walter Reed. In 2006, Bush apologized for poking fun at a reporter who wore sunglasses at a press conference; the reporter is visually impaired. As for the financial crisis, Bush said in an exit interview: “I’m sorry it’s happening, of course,” which isn’t quite the same as “the buck stops here.”

In the first two instances, Bush waited until a undeniably huge and seriously damaging scandal had dominated the headlines for days before appearing before the cameras to accept responsibility. In both instances, it would have been absurd for the president not to have issued an apology.

President Obama’s willingness to say he “screwed up” for a comparatively minor sin, and with such speed, marks a major departure from the previous regime. In his inaugural address, Obama called for a “new era of responsibility.” With his dropping of Daschle and his immediate acceptance of blame, he appears to be living those words.