The Definition of 'I Screwed Up'
In a public forum, the key to a good confession is showing that you're willing to be accountable to those who put you in office, says author Susan Wise Bauer.
So when President Barack Obama went on television last week and told the world "I screwed up" in his nomination of several key cabinet members, including Tom Daschle (who failed to pay $128,000 in taxes), just how redemptive of a confession was it?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in how the public responded to his mistake. Immediately after his appearance on NBC News, several of my Facebook acquaintances in their 30s remarked how they loved having a President who wasn't afraid to admit his shortcomings with such relevant, vulnerable language. "How refreshing!" more than one posted.
On the other hand, my father, who was taught growing up that there are only two things in life you can't avoid — death and taxes — was generally agitated by the entire scenario. He shook his head in frustration that three people Obama had wanted for key positions all failed to pay their taxes in varying degrees. But even he thought Obama's apology was at least a step in the right direction. "He admitted he was wrong — you've got to give him that much," he told me over dinner.
The fact that we all spent just as much time talking about the President's willingness to admit he screwed up as we did pondering the actual mistakes he made meant it was a successful confession, says Bauer, author of The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America (Princeton University Press, 2008).
I asked Bauer how evangelicalism has influenced our culture's desire for public confession, and what she thought of Obama's admission.
How might the practice of Christian confession have influenced Obama's willingness to admit he "screwed up?"
The evangelical culture has influenced our culture. When you confess, you receive grace. There's an essential likeness between evangelical churches and democratic practice. Whether it's in a church or political setting, both groups give leaders power by handing it over to them. It creates a relationship where the leader is one of us, yet we have willingly given him more power than we have. But we don't want him to take it for granted or forget he's one of us. Confession becomes a way for leaders to show they are not abusing power.
What did you make of Obama using such a colloquial phrase?
He's a very smart man. It sounded sincere and unscripted. Yet I'd be surprised if it was not carefully considered. The more a President can identify with a man on the street, the more we can forgive him. Using this phrase shows he has grasped what is important to the public. Our country has a deep suspicion of aristocracy. This goes all the way back to Washington and Jefferson. They didn't want aristocracy playing a part in terms of who was elected to office.
Which is where Obama ran into trouble with Daschle.
Daschle was taking his position and using it to enrich himself. He didn't pay taxes for the use of a friend's chauffeur. There's this moral element to the public's outrage. Obama was in danger of identifying himself with the rich and privileged. So he uses common, powerful language as part of his confession. He said "I screwed up," and he also called the situation a mistake. With those two phrases, he's taking responsibility while also distancing himself from the situation. Then he says, "Let's all join together and move on." As soon as he confesses, he immediately identifies with the common man. This is something Clinton did brilliantly. After the situation with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton did everything in his power to identify with the common man.