Why is this important? While Biden and his fellow Democrats can’t do much in the way of passing laws with the GOP in control of the House, they can still spend the next two years setting an example. Collectively, everyone on the team should be seeking out opportunities to play Gallant to the Republicans’ weird Goofus impulses. But it’s also important for Biden to burnish his credibility with the American people—and maybe be a direly needed change agent in our all-too-tatty political culture. Washington, a notoriously cynical place, is famous for its common sense–crippling ideas about leadership. Perhaps one of the most notorious is the odd standard that holds that publicly admitting errors is a sign of weakness and that politicians should go to comical lengths to avoid doing so.
There’s another way: In Bailout, Neil Barofsky’s memoir of his time in Washington serving as the special inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, he described the advice he received from Kristine Belisle, the woman he smartly hired to be his communications director. It was about as anti-Washington as it can get: “We’ll admit and even highlight our mistakes.” As she went on to explain, there’s method in a strategy that most people inside the Beltway would deem madness:
This is the best way to earn the press’s trust. They’ll know we’re not spinning like everyone else. SIGTARP will quickly become the only credible source for information in Washington about TARP. We might be embarrassed at times and disclose things that we could—and others would—easily hide, but we’ll shock the press with our honesty. No one else does this, and before long, we’ll have a built in defense when we’re attacked. No matter what they hear, the press will come to us first and believe us, because we’ll prove to them that we tell the truth.
This is perhaps the biggest reason for Biden to pursue the course of radical responsibility-taking: Moments inevitably arise in any presidency when having the trust of the public and the institutions that safeguard the civic interest is critical. Moreover, there is vital capital to be earned by owning our mistakes, and there’s an important distinction that Biden can draw with his political opponents. The president would do well to follow the old adage: Tell the truth—and shame the devil.