Refreshing candor

“I screwed up.”

Americans heard those words uttered last week, in the wake of reports that HHS Secretary-designate Tom Daschle had tax problems and was withdrawing from consideration. But the words didn’t come from Daschle; they came from President Obama.

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Watching the president apologize for the unraveling of Daschle’s nomination, I was struck by how long it had been since the buck truly stopped at the Oval Office.

George W. Bush spent two terms ducking blame for so many disasters: an ill-advised war; a crumbling economy; the federal government’s pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina.  Four years ago, he’d been unable to name a single mistake he’d made as president.

Last month, Bush again struggled to find an example of where he’d fallen short. He finally pointed, lamely, to the prematurely hung “Mission Accomplished” banner as one screw-up to which he was willing to cop.
In Washington, accepting blame is anathema. Candor is the tool of last resort. So when Obama shouldered the blame for Daschle’s withdrawal, the pundits clamored about the political price he’d pay for the stumble.

That’s not the way most Americans saw it.

Outside Washington, most folks seemed to accept — even appreciate — this president’s willingness to point out his imperfections without pointing fingers. Polls taken just after Daschle’s withdrawal showed Obama’s approval rating about where it was before this supposedly monumental setback — or even higher. So what’s going on?

It’s another episode of Washington Knows Last. That’s the act of D.C. denizens uncovering political trends long after the rest of the country has weighed in.

Across America, people know the discussion over Daschle is far less relevant to their daily struggle than the economic recovery package for which Obama has been an unflinching champion. And while some cable TV personalities insist that Washington Republicans’ political darts have dented support for the president’s plan, ordinary Americans disagree.  On Wednesday, a Gallup poll measured public support at 59 percent — up six points from early January.

This week, Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., and Fort Myers, Fla. — two cities hit hard by this recession. Some inside-the-Beltway observers described a White House in retreat. “[T]he trips also appear to be an admission that Obama’s honeymoon in Washington evaporated more quickly than his advisers ever imagined,” concluded a story in Sunday’s Washington Post.

But you wouldn’t gather that from the questions asked at Obama’s town-hall meetings.

There, the most pressing concern was for Washington to take bold, immediate action to lift the economy. In Florida, local leaders asked Obama “for federal funding in five areas where jobs can be created quickly” reported The News-Press. “President Obama needs to help Congress understand that the stimulus package isn’t about politics. It’s about survival,” opined the local Indiana newspaper.

Outside Washington, most people understand what it means to invest in roads and bridges, new technology and better schools: jobs created in the short term and a foundation laid for a stronger economy in years to come.
The president’s handling of last week’s Cabinet selection snafu says less about his political prospects than it does about the type of administration he intends to lead. Obama’s language was unequivocal:

“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.”

In other words, this White House will be guided by the values of grassroots America, not hamstrung by the culture of Washington.

Typically, when U.S. politicians apologize, they adopt the mealy-mouthed language made famous during Watergate.

“Mistakes were made,” declared Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler — the rhetorical equivalent of qualifying a promise with a hidden set of crossed fingers.  President Obama doesn’t seem to share that penchant for the passive voice.

Throughout last year’s campaign, Barack Obama conceded that he wouldn’t be a perfect president, but that he’d always be honest about the challenges we face, and that he would always listen, even when we disagree.

That’s exactly what he’s doing. It’s a refreshing change from the politics of the past. And for that, none of us are sorry.

John Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.