President Obama is sorry. Sorry that Democrats lost a bunch of seats in Congress. Sorry that the public hasn't warmed to some of his most consequential policy choices. Sorry that the economy isn't better. And on 60 Minutes last night, he admitted that he's made some mistakes, saying that he takes "personal responsibility" for some of what has gone wrong. What mistakes, exactly? Here's a sample quote from Politico's highlight reel:
"We were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, yeah, leadership isn't just legislation, that it's a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together, and setting a tone," Obama said in an interview conducted Thursday for airing Sunday on CBS's 60 Minutes. "We haven't always been successful at that, and I take personal responsibility for that. And it's something that I have to examine carefully as I go forward."
The same Politico article also notes that "Obama stopped short of expressing public regrets about specific policy decisions." He's coy, isn't he? But look: You can call it a failure of leadership, as Obama does here. Or you can call it a failure of messaging, as a lot of the president's allies have in recent weeks. But what it boils down to is the idea that despite public opinion, the Obama presidency has actually been pretty awesome so far, and if Obama had just done a better job of explaining this, a lot more people would agree.
It's an argument that conveniently allows the administration and its supporters to explain significant public discontent with their policies without admitting that the policies might be flawed in some way. Obama gets to look contrite and say he takes "personal responsibility" for things that have gone wrong without admitting any problem with the substance of his policy decisions, which obviously couldn't possibly be part of the problem.
One problem with the notion that Democrats could've messaged their way out of the political hole they've been digging is that it conflicts somewhat with the other popular Democratic explanation for why they lost. That argument posits that A) first-term presidents almost always see midterm losses for their party in Congress and B) those losses were compounded this time around by the fact that the economy remains in the smelliest part of the septic tank. When unemployment is this high, voters tend to take out their anger on whichever party is in power. If this argument is true, and to some degree I think it clearly is, then voters were responding to economic fundamentals. Better messaging of the exact same policy decisions—which is what Obama is indicating should've happened—wouldn't have changed those fundamentals, and so couldn't have helped very much.
Obama's comments also suggest that when it comes to presidential rhetoric, his team is stuck thinking in mostly obsolete campaign terms. Obama was actually pretty effective at "persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together, and setting a tone" while on the campaign trail. But that sort of inspirational rhetorical fluff works a lot better when making promises than it does when justifying previous decisions. It's salesmanship versus self-reporting. It's one thing to convince voters who are largely unfamiliar with you that they're probably going to like you and the things you plan to do sometime in the future. It's something else, though, to convince them that, despite strong feelings about the decisions you've made, they really should like you and all the awesome stuff you've done.