- - Thursday, November 6, 2014


Listening to President Obama at his news conference the day after his party got trounced in the midterm elections, it’s clear that he’s sticking to the same old game plan; namely, taking no responsibility for the loss, and instead, focusing the blame on voters’ disgust with “this town,” Washington — a euphemism for Republicans in Congress. The likely result is that a defiant Mr. Obama will have absolutely no hope of accomplishing anything significant in his remaining two years in office, except through executive orders that may ultimately subject him to an impeachment process.

What a reasonable chief executive would have done under circumstances that clearly indicated deep voter disapproval for his policies is offer a modicum of apology. President Clinton did just that after his party was shellacked in the 1994 midterm elections. Given Mr. Obama’s denial of reality and responsibility, though, the most appropriate reaction is totally off the table — namely, offering an apology to a joint session of Congress, where especially Democrats, who have consistently carried his water for the past six years, deserve better.

To be sure, other chief executives have acknowledged their mistakes over the years, including Richard Nixon over Watergate, Mr. Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair and, yes, even Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal. “A few months ago,” said Reagan in 1987, “I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

These examples of presidential apologies, however, were never made to Congress, which is the one body that Mr. Obama has to assuage if his presidency can end on a note of accommodation and accomplishment. Ulysses S. Grant was the only president to do just that, and even though his action came at the end of his second term, it was a remarkable example of candor, aiding his historical reputation.

Recall that Grant and Mr. Obama have much in common. Both men were political novices, plagued by administrative scandals (a total of 11 for Grant) and preferred relaxation to work. Like Mr. Obama’s numerous golf outings, Grant loved leisure and spent every one of his eight presidential summers beginning in 1869 in Long Branch, N. J., no matter the press of Washington matters. Like Mr. Obama, he put close friends in office to run the executive branch and supported them when scandal broke out. In the notorious Whiskey Ring scandal of 1875, officers went to jail, but Grant pardoned them after a few months. In most other scandals, Grant’s rhetoric (“Let no guilty man escape”) exceeded his actions.

In his annual and final message to Congress on Dec. 5, 1876, Grant put his mea culpa at the top of the address: “It was my fortune or misfortune to be called to the office of Chief Executive,” he indicated, “without any previous political training. From the age of 17, I had never witnessed the excitement attending a presidential campaign but twice antecedent to my own candidacy, and at but one of them was I eligible to vote.”

Grant went on: “Under such circumstances, it is reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit . History shows that no administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free for these mistakes . Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

Given his background, Grant can be excused for many of his shortcomings, and the decision to ‘fess up a little in his annual address to Congress, although not a magnanimous gesture, was certainly appreciated, with some in his party urging him to run for a third term. What is so distressing about Mr. Obama’s lack of political humility in recognizing his faults is that there is no redeeming, countervailing knowledge about the office he occupies. As a former professor of constitutional law, he is embarrassingly wanting in his specialty.

For instance, his news conference suggestion that in the event he issued an executive order, Congress could override it by passing a bill makes no sense. Such a measure would be subject to Mr. Obama’s veto, thereby making the congressional effort ludicrous.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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