Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Obama: "I take full responsibility"

Tibor R. Machan

This expressions has come mean nothing at all in Washington, nothing. As many others have pointed out, taking responsibility has to have some consequences--if you take it for something good, the consequence would be a reward or compliment or some such positive thing, while if you take it for something bad, the consequence would be a loss of some sort.

But when President Obama said he takes full responsibility for the mess with several of his nominees, especially with former House Majority Leader, Democratic ex-Senator from North Dakota, Tom Daschle, nothing at all appears to have happened in terms of adverse consequence for Mr. Obama. Did he have to resign? No. Did he have to pay a fine? Nothing happened even to the Democratic Party's reputation which should have suffered most in the eyes of voters. It seems to be all A-Okay! What on earth then does it mean for President Obama to take full responsibility?

And he of course is by no means the only one who keeps using this phrase without any seriousness at all. Many politicians do so, both Democrats and Republicans. Every time it occurs, it prompts me to wonder whether some kind of secret agreement has been made in Washington and perhaps throughout the political landscape that when some malpractice occurs, someone will stand up and say this and that's it, nothing else will happen. Taking responsibility will thus come to mean nothing and amount to nothing.

And the media appears to go along with all this since when President Obama said on ABC-TV News that he takes full responsibility for the Daschle mess, no one followed up with a question, "And what exactly will your punishment be, given that you take full responsibility?" Or perhaps they all believe that such misconduct by politicians will only come to be dealt with in the afterlife so there is no need to worry about it here.

Responsibility means having been a primary cause of what one is responsible for--say you take responsibility for a car accident or the collapse of a building of which you were the building supervisor or a botched up operation where you are the chief surgeon. In all such cases if you are the responsible party and it's discovered, usually certain serious adverse consequences follow. Like a demotion, for example, in the military, or the loss of a job in a civilian line of work. But if nothing at all follows from being responsible for an adverse result, then it is really quite pointless to say someone was responsible for it. More likely, taking responsibility without such adverse consequence demeans the very idea of responsibility, renders is vacuous.

What, for example, should criminal defendants, who get convicted of a crime for which they are found to have been responsible, think of this loose use of the concept of responsibility? Why should they feel any regret, why should they accept their punishment for what they did? After all, no one is punishing the President of the United States when he proclaims to be responsible of the nomination of a tax dodger to his cabinet?

President Obama made a lot of noise during the election campaign, and even after it, about how there will be change in Washington when he gets there and specifically about how ethics will be front and center during his presidency. By failing to take real responsibility for having chosen several people for his team who have tainted legal and ethical records, his claims on this matter can be dismissed as disingenuous. His critics will have every justification for saying that he isn't trustworthy, he is no better a politician than those he and his supporters have criticized in magazines, Op Ed pieces, TV commentaries.

It would be interesting to hear former President Bush and Vice President Chaney as they witness how the righteous team of President Obama is faltering so early in the Obama presidency. I can just hear what Rush Limbaugh must be making of all this!

But more important than all of that is the fact that very likely what President Obama is experiencing is simply unavoidable in a bloated welfare state like America has become. When the government is in the business of wealth redistribution, handing out favors right and left, to various special interest groups and powerful allies, how on earth can anyone expect there to be ethically and legal spotless politicians? It is part of such a welfare state that it breeds corruption.

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