The Apologiator: President Obama takes responsibility, again. And again. And again...
Obama did it again: After news broke that his drone assassins killed two Al Qaeda hostages in Pakistan, including American aid worker Warren Weinstein, the president took “full responsibility” and offered his “deepest apologies.”
It’s an old habit of his, running around the country and the world, taking responsibility for everything, including things he had nothing to do with. Obama learned to take responsibility for things as a kind of motor reflex, and in doing so, he's hollowed out whatever meaning a president taking responsibility for murdering people and screwing up entire regions of the world might have, inflating away the value of "responsibility" like so much Bitcoin.
But the sad truth is that there was a time when most Americans were convinced that having a president who publicly took responsibility for screwing up was something politically consequential and courageous — if only because Dubya’s administration had set the bar so low.
Obama the candidate saw early on the angles on how being the guy who “takes responsibility” could earn him all sorts of credibility and plaudits from the Beltway crowd and other shapers of public opinion. The angle was—it costs nothing for a political leader, in the context of the post-Bush ruins, to stand up before the cameras, looking very solemn and serious, and take full responsibility for....pretty much anything and everything.
It turns out that unlike in the private sector, all a public figure who royally screws up has to do to be absolved of screwing up is to “take responsibility” and apologize. In the private sector, admitting you screwed up can have real consequences—lawsuits, bonuses and the like. So even when companies are caught red-handed cheating and defrauding, such as the Techtopus tech companies caught conspiring to illegally fix their employees’ wages and mobility, they’re invariably allowed to settle with the government “without admitting guilt.”
In the rare instance when a private sector company does apologize for doing something monstrous and/or illegal, you’ll often see them try to walk it back for fear of consequences. So for example last year, when Uber executive Emil Michael was publicly outed for threatening to launch a million dollar smear campaign to destroy Pando’s Sarah Lacy and her family, Uber executives initially issued half-apologies before walking the apologies back and turning to surrogate smear campaigns instead. Apologies can have real consequences in the private sector.
But in professions where credibility, not company profits, matter most, apologies come cheap, free of consequences, and have the magic ability of absolving you of whatever catastrophic failures you’re apologizing for, so that you can move on to the next giant disaster without any of the last disaster’s baggage.
Take my so-called profession, journalism—where in theory, your value is your credibility, although in practice, your value is your power-network, and your willingness to shamelessly con the public. Note how the hollow ritual of public apology served both disgraced ex-CIA chief David Petraeus, and Petraeus’ leading courtier among journalists, one Spencer Ackerman—and how this hollow ritual allowed both to get off scot-free and move on:
-Petraeus’ first speech after getting busted for illegally leaking secrets: “please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret — and apologize for — the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA...”
So you can see the logic of Obama deciding to one-up Team Bush’s refusal to ever take responsibility for their myriad catastrophic screw-ups, by flipping it around and taking responsibility for everything. Because doing so in a political context of zero accountability means zero consequences, lots of brownie points from all the other compromised Beltway hacks. (Curiously this strategy of squirting a few for the public hasn’t worked as well for religious fundamentalists as it has for political figures and journalism hacks.)
Here then is a partial list of some of the many things Obama has courageously taken responsibility for or apologized for:
-Inauguration speech, January 2009: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. A recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.”
-February 3, 2009: President Barack Obama to CBS: "I screwed up."
Obama to CNN: "I think I screwed up, and I take responsibility for it."
Obama to NBC: "Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. And I'm willing to take my lumps."
-March 18, 2009, on AIG bonuses: “President Obama said Wednesday he'll "take responsibility" for AIG executives receiving controversial bonuses while the company took $173 billion in government bailouts.”
-Takes responsibility for 2008 financial crisis before he took office: "It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the crisis began in the US. I take responsibility, even if I wasn't even president at the time."
-May 28, 2010: Takes responsibility for BP oil spill: "I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down.”
-November 3, 2010: Takes responsibility for midterm election disaster: “too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday. And as President, I take responsibility for that.”
-Ibid: “I think the American people want to see more transparency, more openness. As I said, in the midst of economic crisis, I think one of the things I take responsibility for is not having pushed harder on some of those issues.”
-October 17, 2012: Deaths in Benghazi: "I'm the president. And I'm always responsible."
-October 30, 2013: Buggy healthcare.gov site: "[T]here's no excuse for it. And I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP.”
-November 10, 2014: Midterm elections disaster: “The buck stops right here at my desk . . . I’ve got to take responsibility for it.”
Obama tells others who’ve been screwed over by the US one way or another to take responsibility too:
-July 15, 2008, African-Americans: "Now, I know there's some who've been saying I've been too tough, talking about responsibility.” [Reuters, “Obama tells blacks they must take responsibility”]
-April 7, 2009: “It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis...They need to take responsibility for their country.”
-July 9, 2009: “Obama tells African leaders to take responsibility for economic failures”:
-December 1, 2009: Afghanistan: “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground...But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”
There you have it, the two options we have left today: Either hollowed-out apologies with zero consequences, or no apologies with zero consequences. As Sam Kinison would say, “Thanks for the Big Menu, God!”