Should Politicians Apologize?
Sorry, I ain't sorry
Sorry, I ain't sorry
I ain't sorry
He trying to roll me up
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and yes, the team of The Takeaway is in here. We're listening to Beyonce and sipping on the lemonade of unapologetic executive authority. It was President Biden's Monday press conference about America's messy departure from Afghanistan that got us thinking about what it sounds like when leaders say--
Sorry, I ain't sorry
Sorry, I ain't sorry
Melissa Harris-Perry: On Monday, President Biden sounded like this.
President Biden: I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is what George W Bush sounded like throughout his presidency.
George W Bush: What the American people need to know is what our allies know. I am determined to stay the course.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Many would agree that President Trump took unapologetic to new lengths during his single term in office.
President Trump: I'm the president of the United States. Don't ever talk to the president that way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This steadfast, make no apology stance is so common I sometimes wonder if all the DC political advisors and speechwriters have watched Aaron Sorkin's The American president one too many times.
Andrew Sheppard: My name is Andrew Sheppard, and I am the president.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth noting what happened to the presidential candidate who did make multiple high-profile apologies, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She had to apologize for using her personal email.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: That was a mistake. I'm sorry about that. I take responsibility and I'm trying to be as transparent as I possibly can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She had to apologize for backing her husband's crime bill when she was first lady.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: I'm sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people's lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She even had to apologize for losing the election.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: I'm sorry that we did not win this election.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems like our politics prefers stay the course, the buck stops here, I am the president shows of strength. Is that political preference harming the quality of our democracy? Isn't there something strong about being willing to bend? Joining me now is Joel Payne, former aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and host of the podcast, Here Comes the Payne. Joe, welcome.
Joel Payne: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also joining the conversation is Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR who is currently covering her third presidential administration. Ayesha, welcome to you as well.
Ayesha Rascoe: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ayesha, to me, it was striking to hear President Biden say the buck stops here on Monday. Although he was certainly taking accountability, he also sounded pretty unapologetic to me. Is that what you heard or did you hear that speech differently?
Ayesha Rascoe: I heard him trying to, and I felt like he was trying to draw a distinction from the prior administration and from former President Trump who never apologized. In this case, I felt like Biden was saying, "I take responsibility. I am president." He also was saying he didn't have any regrets. He was also very defensive. I do agree that he wasn't apologizing.
He was saying, "I take responsibility for what happened," although he wasn't super specific about what he was taking responsibility for. He was saying that he takes responsibility but he was not apologizing. He was not saying that he regretted anything. He has said he does not regret his actions or even that he feels like he could have done something differently.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joel, what did you hear?
Joel Payne: I think the president was trying to take accountability, which is a quality and a value that we appreciate in our leaders generally speaking. I think it even goes a level deeper for me. Our relationships with our presidents are singular in the federal system. We have this personal rapport and relationship with our presidents that are unique to anybody else in government. It's not like a relationship with a senator or a governor or a mayor. The president has a really unique individual relationship with voters and so you're always digging into that reservoir of goodwill and trust. President Biden, one of his key qualities that helped him be the president was that the American people trust him.
They've trusted him through a lot of public moments as vice president, as senator, and now as president. The president was digging into that reservoir to tap into that trust to say, "You know me, you know who I am. I made this decision and I take responsibility, but I'm not going to apologize." The biggest piece that I see here is just that reservoir of goodwill, but also are you genuine? Ultimately, I think that is what voters and that is what citizens are looking for most is are you genuine and can I tell that you're being genuine in these key moments?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That’s such an interesting description and way of thinking about Joe because I do think that we can think that a leader is genuine, is authentic without necessarily thinking that they are fully trustworthy. This kept happening during Bill Clinton's presidency in the public opinion polls. You'd see, "I don't necessarily trust him on his personal ethics, but I do trust him to protect the economy and that's what I care about as a voter."
Ayesha, I'm wondering as you listen to this idea that Joel was offering us, this really interesting one, that we have a particular singular relationship with our president, I'm wondering if tapping into that reservoir of trust means being more willing to be transparent about one's vulnerabilities and faults and mistakes or less transparent about them.
Ayesha Rascoe: In American history, it has meant being less transparent about vulnerabilities and faults and mistakes. I will say that, and I agree with Joel, it's a very different relationship that the president has. It's almost like a parental figure. It's this leader, he's supposed to comfort the nation. There's also this degree to which leadership in this country I think can be viewed as to be strong is to not say that you're sorry.
I was taken by when you showed all those clips of Hillary Clinton, you have to look at that from the dynamic of a woman being told or being conditioned to apologize to say, "I'm sorry," to say, "I didn't need to do that," and men not necessarily being conditioned that way in the society. Being taught that strength is saying, "I did this, I take responsibility," but not saying, "I'm sorry if anyone was hurt or offended." That is not typically how strength is viewed in this country. This idea of a male dominance I think can't be separated from the fact that all of our presidents have been men and this is the way they have projected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ayesha definitely taking us to a really critical place around gender analysis and this concept of strength and apology. Joel, I got to come to you on this. As former aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, how did you all think about this question of gender strength and apology?
Joel Payne: Melissa, I think I had the same reaction to Ayesha's comments as you. It feels like she was taking us to church. It does certainly bring back some thoughts about what that experience was like on the 2016 campaign with Hillary Clinton. It's interesting the qualities that people ascribe to these public figures as political figures. Whereas Donald Trump was seen as resolute and he had a spine and he wouldn't back down, Hillary Clinton was seen as being inflexible. Where he was seen as being cunning, she was seen as being untrustworthy.
This certainly does get into gender dynamics. I think, by the way, it's part of the challenge that Vice President Harris has now and is going to continue to have as she continues to build out her public profile as somebody who was going to be on the political scene forever. Again, just want to just double down on this whole idea of that unique relationship that a president has with the American public.
If you really think about it, that relationship with the president is the only one where they are in our homes and in our lives every single day for the four years of their term. There's no one else in the country that's like that, and so this reservoir trust that we're talking about and whether or not they're taking accountability, it all becomes so much more important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ayesha, in covering presidents, I'm wondering if you hear advisors, if you hear staff actually actively trying to think about maintaining that reservoir of trust with the American people.
Joel Payne: It depends on the administration now. Advisors typically want to be seen as trustworthy. They want people to believe what they have to say. They typically and administrations will try to at least give their spin of the truth. It's the truth, but it's a spin on it. I think there is a difficulty because even though people want their politicians to be trustworthy, there is this thing where politicians are sometimes punished for being too transparent. They do not benefit from saying, ''I messed up.'' When they say I messed up, then that becomes a campaign ad and then people go, ''Can you believe he messed up? What?"
It doesn't necessarily benefit them. I think there are two different issues here. It's the issue of what's good for democracy and what is good for an individual candidate, and what individual president who wants to get reelected. Sometimes it seems like the decision is if we admit that we messed up, the cost will be more to us politically. Even though it may be the morally right thing to do, we will face a political cost. That is what they're calculating.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ayesha, I feel like you've gone right to the core of it. That what is campaign strategy is different than long-term democratic health strategy. That these might be two very different things. We might want to a transparent, vulnerable, thoughtful, willing to learn president from a long-term democracy perspective, I think here of President Jimmy Carter, but from a political perspective, that vulnerability and willingness to learn publicly is often punished on the campaign trail. Joel, we talked a little bit about gender. I want to talk about race a bit here because I'm also thinking of President Obama.
Early in his presidency, being pressured to apologize for his statements that the Cambridge police acted stupidly. I've always said I think it's just because he used an adverb, and Americans don't use those anymore so we made him apologize for it. That ended up having an important effect on his executive capacity over the next few years in terms of always coming back to that beer summit moment.
Joel Payne: That was a really unique moment in the Obama presidency. Look, there was certainly a part of the country, many of us African-Americans who understood what he was saying. whatever part of speech he decided to lead into adverbs, adjectives, what have you participles, whatever you want to call it. We knew exactly what he was talking about when he was referring to the situation where that police officer accosted Gates at his home. The president, again, he's not just speaking as Barack Obama the man, he's speaking as Barack Obama the head of government, and it is uniquely layered when you are an African-American, and you view the world through those lens.
I certainly think President Obama was treated to a different understanding of what that was like as an African-American man. One thing, if I could just jump to really quickly, Melissa, is what we're talking about here in this moment is really about President Biden trying to reclaim this moment around Afghanistan. It really it's him trying to reclaim the narrative. That speech where he was talking about leaning into his accountability and leaning into the buck stops here, that was him trying to say, ''I am reclaiming control of the high ground in the narrative,'' which is more important than right or wrong at that point. It was demonstrating being in control.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ayesha, I wonder also as Joel was pointing out, that reclamation of the narrative is particularly important in the president's role in foreign policy. That cannot show weakness' might actually be good for democracy or good for governance when it is outward-facing.
Ayesha Rascoe: If there's any area you want the president to be in control it would be foreign policy, it would be as commander-in-chief. I think in many ways, that is important. It has to be backed up with actions. It can't just be the rhetoric. You have to demonstrate I think in a case like this that you actually are in control because if people keep seeing these images that look so distraught and so chaotic, that trust that Joel keeps talking about, that genuineness is going to be really tested.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joel, I'll come to that. Now I'm going to go a little love and hip hop here on it. If you're standing there telling me, ''Hey, girl, just trust me. You know we've been together a long time,'' but I can smell the perfume on you, that's going to be a problem because the evidence of what I can see is different than what you're saying. Isn't Biden maybe in saying, ''Trust me, I got this," but it doesn't look like he has this, isn't that possibly going to erode that reservoir of trust?
Joel Payne: It's certainly possible, but that's where your record matters. President Biden can certainly point to a record of as vice president, as senator, as a public figure where his clear distinguishing characteristic is being someone of integrity, who deals straight with people, who talks straight. Those qualities come into real factor when you're talking about a crisis moment like this.
We just had a President Donald Trump who would not be able to draw on that same reservoir because that was not his public persona. No one certainly thought Donald Trump was being truthful or honest. In his public moments, they thought he was always trying to obfuscate and dodge and dip. Those moments play differently. If you put Donald Trump in the place of Joe Biden over the last week with this situation related to Afghanistan, I think it's a very different public conversation we're having.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joel Payne, host of the podcast Here Comes the Payne, and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR. Thank you both for joining us.
Ayesha Rascoe: Thank you.
Joel: Thank you, Melissa.
[00:15:45] [END OF AUDIO]
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