Talking to Katie Couric of CBS News in the Oval Office about Tom Daschle’s aborted Cabinet appointment, President Barack Obama said, “I screwed up.”
With CNN’s Anderson Cooper across from him, the new president admitted, “I think I screwed up.”
To NBC’s Brian Williams: “I’m here on television saying I screwed up.”
To ABC’s Charles Gibson: “These were honest mistakes, but ultimately there’s no excuse for them.”
And, finally, to Chris Wallace of Fox News Channel: “I consider this a mistake on my part and one that I intend to fix and correct and make sure that we’re not screwing up again.”
Obama surely didn’t anticipate a mea culpa tour when the anchors were scheduled for Tuesday afternoon interviews, but that’s what it turned into.
“There’s no being sure when you invite someone over that the news you’re going to have for them is good,” Williams said on Wednesday. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
The networks heard rumblings that the interviews were being set up and received formal invitations late Sunday or early Monday. Plainly, the idea for the Obama team was to take prominent television platforms to fight for the president’s economic stimulus plan in the court of public opinion.
Cameras were set up, the president was miked and each anchor entered the Oval Office for a 10-minute session, one after the other. Gibson was first, followed by Williams, Couric, Cooper and Wallace. “It did have a ‘picture taking with Santa’ kind of feel to it,” Williams said.
The rapid-fire format helped the Obama team avoid having to decide who gets the first exclusive Oval Office interview, a decision that would make one network deliriously happy and four others mighty annoyed.
The timing, one of the worst days of Obama’s young presidency, was awful for him. The Daschle situation was the first thing on everyone’s mind.
Williams had a moment of brief panic while waiting in the White House when he saw a presidential motorcade driving away. Obama wasn’t skipping out on the interviews — that would have probably made the stories even worse — but briefly joined First Lady Michelle Obama at a nearby school to read to second-graders.
“They may have regretted having us all down there,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News,” who accompanied Gibson. “That was not evident from my interaction with the president or any of his staff.”
It seemed Obama “called an audible” in admitting to the mistakes, Williams said. The NBC anchor said he was surprised at how three of the president’s words — “I screwed up” — became news all over the world so quickly, perhaps because his predecessor rarely made such admissions.
Obama alluded to that in his interview with Williams. “That’s part of the era of responsibility, is not never making mistakes, it’s owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them and that’s what we intend to do,” the president said.
While the interviews may not have achieved their intended goals, they could shorten the life of a damaging story.