Charles M. Blow
In trying to lay the blame for the border crisis on the White House’s doorstep, House Speaker John Boehner exploded at a press conference on Thursday, saying of the president:
“He’s been president for five and a half years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?”
The suggestion in the question — that the president doesn’t take responsibility for anything — is so outrageously untrue that it demands strong rebuttal.
President Obama hasn’t taken all the blame Republicans have ascribed to him, nor should he have. But he has often been quick to take responsibility.
In 2009, after the administration came under fire for A.I.G. executives’ receiving bonuses after the bailout, Obama said on the lawn of the White House:
“Ultimately I’m responsible. I’m the president of the United States. We’ve got a big mess that we’re having to clean up. Nobody here drafted those contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising A.I.G. and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in. We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me.”
After the failed bombing plot on Christmas Day in 2009 by a young Nigerian man with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear, the president took responsibility for intelligence lapses, saying the next month:
“Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately, the buck stops with me.”
In a 2011 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the president took responsibility for the economy and the rate at which it was being repaired, saying:
“Well, here’s what I remember, is that when I came into office, I knew I was going to have a big mess to clean up and, frankly, the mess has been bigger than I think a lot of people anticipated at the time. We have made steady progress on these fronts, but we’re not making progress fast enough.
“And what I continue to believe is that ultimately the buck stops with me. I’m going to be accountable. I think people understand that a lot of these problems were decades in the making. People understand that this financial crisis was the worst since the Great Depression. But, ultimately, they say, look, he’s the president, we think he has good intentions, but we’re impatient and we want to see things move faster.”
In an interview in the 2012 election cycle, the president reiterated his philosophy about presidential responsibility in response to a question about Mitt Romney’s relationship to Bain Capital:
“Well, here’s what I know, we were just talking about responsibility, and as president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and, you know, Harry Truman said the buck stops with you.”
In a 2013 interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the president said he was accountable for Washington gridlock:
“Well, look, ultimately, the buck stops with me. And so any time we are not moving forward on things that should be simple, I get frustrated.”
In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd after the health care rollout, the president took responsibility for the problems rather than simply pin them on Kathleen Sebelius, then the health and human services secretary, saying: “My priority right now is to get it fixed. … Ultimately, the buck stops with me. I’m the president. This is my team. If it is not working, it is my job to get it fixed.”
(The site is now fixed, the law is working, and according to a Gallup report issued Thursday the uninsured rate has dropped to “the lowest quarterly average recorded since Gallup and Healthways began tracking the percentage of uninsured Americans in 2008.”)
This president is a habitual blame-taker. This is the anti-George W. Bush. The fess-upper in chief. He is the antidote to the eight previous years of obfuscation, fault-dodging and flat-out denial.
This is one of the traits that made Obama an attractive candidate, and it is one of his best traits as a president.
But taking his share of responsibility does not mean he must acquiesce to his opponents and absolve them of guilt, particularly not an intransigent Congress that would rather do nothing than something, particularly not Republican leaders who envision opportunity in opposition. The president has a duty to himself and the country to call them out for the part they play in our problems.
The real question, Mr. Boehner, is not when the president will take personal responsibility for something. He has. Many times. The real question is, When will you?