Seven years ago, in April 2004, President George W. Bush held a formal news conference in which he was asked, "What would your biggest mistake be…and what lessons have you learned from it?" Bush's hemming and hawing answer -- in several minutes of flailing about, he never managed to come up with a single mistake to cite -- was widely criticized in the days that followed.
On Wednesday, President Obama held a town hall at the headquarters of Facebook in Palo Alto, California, during which he was asked, "If you had to do anything differently during your first four years, what would it be?" Obama, it turns out, is no better at analyzing his own missteps than Bush.
The president began his response haltingly, pointing out that he has actually been in office just two and a half years, and "I'm sure I'll make more mistakes in the next year and a half." But what mistakes has he already made? "There are all sorts of day-to-day issues where I say to myself, oh, I didn't say that right, or I didn't explain this clearly enough," Obama said, "or maybe if I had sequenced this plan first as opposed to that one, maybe it would have gotten done quicker."
But the president mentioned no actual mistakes. Next, he brought up the health care battle, not to admit error but to praise the work of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in pushing the national health care bill through Congress. The fight got pretty complicated, Obama said, "and I've asked myself sometimes is there a way that we could have gotten it done more quickly and in a way that the American people wouldn't have been so frustrated by it?" Was that possibly a mistake? Obama quickly excused himself. "I'm not sure I could have because there's a reason why it hadn't gotten done in a hundred years," the president explained. "It's hard to fix a system as big as health care and as complicated as our health care system." After a good bit of talking, Obama still had not mentioned any mistake or anything he would do differently.
At that point, Obama decided to steer away from the subject of mistakes altogether. "I think the best way to answer the question is what do I feel I still have to get done," he said. He briefly mentioned the deficit and immigration reform.
And then it was on to energy. "We haven't talked a lot about energy today," Obama said, "but first of all, $4-a-gallon gas really hurts a lot of people around this country…" With that, Obama began a long discussion of gas mileage, solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, clear car technology, the federal auto fleet, electric cars, hybrids, fuel-efficiency standards, oil production, and more. After that it was the big oil companies. They shouldn't receive government subsidies, Obama said, nor should they get special tax breaks.
"So when it comes to energy," said Obama, summing up, "when it comes to immigration, when it comes to getting our deficit under control in a balanced and smart way, when it comes to improving our math and science education, when it comes to reinvesting in our infrastructure, we've just got a lot more work to do."
By then, it was hard to remember that Obama's long and rambling answer was in response to the question, "If you had to do anything differently during your first four years, what would it be?" Obama's answer, even with all its twists and turns, was smoother than Bush's had been seven years earlier. But in substance it was no different.