The Fear of Being Seen To Fail

17 Oct

I was asked by a friend to comment on the US shutdown, which is still underway with the outcome not yet clear. I declined; everything I hear about the shutdown is second- or third-hand at the very least, which makes it difficult to judge just what is actually going on. Certainly, President Obama seems to be struggling desperately, even to the point of damaging the long-term stability of the American Government as a whole. The trust lost by federal agencies such as the National Park Service will not be regained in a hurry, if at all.

But there is one aspect of politics that, I feel, has played a major role in this disaster – and in many others. That is the fear of being seen to fail.

One of the simplest problems with being President, or Prime Minister, or any other world leader is that you are expected to be perfect. Everyone on the outside of your government will carp and criticise and suggest, very loudly, that whatever the current problem is wouldn’t have happened if THEY were in the big chair. No, sir! This is, of course, abject nonsense. It is very rare for a government to shift course totally even after an election replaces the previous party with someone new. The newcomers still have to grapple with the same problem.

What this tends to mean is that governments tend to refuse to admit their mistakes openly.

It is a truism that applies far outside the military that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Things can and do go wrong. The minute you put your plan into operation, you are exposed to the whims of both enemy action and random chance, both of which will work against you. The difference between a successful commander and an unsuccessful one is the ability to react, adapt and overcome the various unexpected challenges that will be placed in your path.

And, no matter what you do, failure is an option.

This is largely ignored by media talking heads and politicians. Whenever something is started, the possibility exists that it will fail, no matter what the person in charge does. I do not set out to lose the endless games of chess I play. But if I assume that I just can’t lose, I will probably lose quite badly. And, even if I do lose, I will learn from the experience.

However, politicians often feel that they don’t have that option. Their enemies will make sure that they bear the blame for any failures that take place on their watch. The slightest setback will be branded a total failure.

When Iraq was invaded, it rapidly became clear to everyone apart from the Bush Administration and Blair’s government that an insurgency was underway. However, the presence of this insurgency proved that pre-war planning (insofar as we can dignify it with that term) was hopelessly optimistic. Naturally, Rumsfeld (who bore a large part of the blame for the US side of this failure) couldn’t admit this openly, with the net result that opportunities to stop the insurgency before it really got going were lost. But then, openly admitting that this had gone wrong would have seriously damaged his career.

What moved President Bush from an acceptable President to a good President was his willingness to try to fix this problem. Tony Blair earned a place in infamy through failing to even admit that there was a problem, at least until it was far too late. Blair, I suspect, reasoned that if he confessed that there was a problem, he would likely be unseated by rebels in the Labour Party. This fear of being seen to fail haunted his thinking and made it impossible for him to try to correct his mistakes.

It is impossible for me to say with any certainty what President Obama is thinking just now. However, I think that Obama is reluctant to admit failure, let alone try to fix the problem.

I simply do not know enough about his healthcare plans to say with any confidence if they are good or bad for America. (The NHS in the UK has been very much a mixed bag and, believe me, anyone who can afford it goes private.) It seems clear, however, that his plan to introduce the system has failed. Nor is this the greatest problem currently facing America and the West.

Instead of conceding defeat, Obama seems bent on brinkmanship that will resonate through the American political system for long after he has left the White House. This is the spawn of a system that makes it impossible to admit that something has gone wrong – and places wishful thinking over sober analysis. Is this the hope and change you were expecting?

11 Responses to “The Fear of Being Seen To Fail”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 17, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    By not “manning up” and admitted that he made mistakes, Obama convinces people that he’s incompetent and/or he wants the US to fail. [Sad Smile]

  2. Ian Birchenough October 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm #


    The problem might better be seen as ‘Obama carrying through the program he was elected on’, whilst his defeated opponents attempt to refight the last Presidential election.

    Some of the commentary I’ve read seems to indicate that the Republicans (or part of the Republicans, the Tea-Party wing ) fear that having Obamacare to look after the medical issues of those who can’t afford private healthcare, will turn the US into some sort of Socialist state. As such I don’t think it’s a fear of failure issue. Leaving aside the merits of systems of Healthcare, Obama won the election so a majority of the population of the US approve his program. Him refusing to allow his defeated opponents to turn back the clock is not a fear of failure, rather it’s a display of backbone.


    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      It’s very strange to hear how “popular” Obamacare is when I also hear of polls where a majority of people dislike it. Of course, there are also stories about Obama supporters getting “sticker shock” over how much they’ll now pay for health insurance.

      On the other hand, “everybody knows” that people who dislike Obama are racist.

      • Ben Hartley October 17, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

        Of course I’m a racist, Paul: I’m Caucasian, after all. [grin]

        Now, about that “universal healthcare.” Under US law, I’m enrolled in MediCare Part A. (That’s a requirement when one reaches retirement and wishes to draw Social Security.) I also forego a reasonably small portion of my monthly Social Security receipt for Medicare, Part B. (For grits and shiggles, it’s $105 per month.) There is a major “gap” between Part A and Part B coverage, which has been covered for the past ten years by a “MediGap” commercial policy issued by Blue Cross/Blue Shield. That policy is no longer available to me, thanks to the Magic Mulatto and his Minions. Will my premium go up? Do bears do their business in the woods? This is supposed to be wonderful or something? Parsdon me while I go off into a corner and barf; I promise I’ll do it quietly.

        Ben Hartley

      • Bob Walters October 19, 2013 at 5:12 am #

        Except that the numbers quoted include the people who would have preferred a single payer or true universal healthcare system. The actual number that express dislike is around 37%. As to sticker shock many have seen premium decline and the increases have been one the whole less than in past years. Here fact check about some of the Myths:

  3. Bob Walters October 19, 2013 at 4:56 am #

    “What moved President Bush from an acceptable President to a good President was his willingness to try to fix this problem.”
    Christopher Nuttall

    How can anyone who is critical of the war in Iraq make the above statement is beyond me. The way we handled the war was a crime but there was not a chance of a snowball in hell that anyone in the US would have gone for what was necessary. In fact, it is possible that we could not have correctly prosecuted the war in Iraq. The US did not want the commitment in either casualties or financial cost. The idea of a long term commitment of 10 or 15 years would never have cut it. In addition without a draft it is unlikely we could have fielded the troops necessary to do it “right”. As it was many soldiers had too many tours at the front with a great many suffering enormous problems because of it. Everyone wants to play with the military until they have to pay for it and pick up the broken pieces afterward. I suspect George W. Bush will go down in history as one of the worst presidents we have seen.

  4. Bob Walters October 19, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    BTW can anyone tell me who first implemented Univeral Hralthcare? I’ll give you a hint, Wikipedia is wrong.

    • Bob Walters October 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

      That would, of course, be Universal Healthcare. I hate making stupid mistakes!

  5. Mike Atraides October 23, 2013 at 12:05 am #

    How not giving in to terrorist demands can be viewed as a sign of weakness is beyond me. And yes, I regard the Tea Party Taliban as political terrorists, holding an entire nation and the greater world economy hostage for their fringe, quasi-religious beliefs.
    I am in no way a fan of Mr. Obama (although mostly for different reasons than Chris and many readers here I’d wager) but in this he was fully right.
    Like it or not, the electorate has in its majority voted for him and his platform of which the ACA was a big if not the biggest single point. It is in no way satisfactory but it is the best he could do considering the often completely irrational opposition against it.
    That a tiny minority of criminally deluded or (even more likely) criminally egotistical pseudo-lawmakers can do such a thing is just a big warning sign that the US political system is not only flawed, but broken.

    • Bob Walters October 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

      They can do it because of the funding they get from their corporate backers. What I find interesting is how much the tea party resembles the students in “When the Bough Breaks.” They are being manipulated and played by a group that is only interested in increasing its profit margin. The idea that the lawmakers themselves are behind it incredibly unlikely as they are just two-bit players in a multi-billion dollar game.

      • William B Jackson October 24, 2013 at 4:55 am #

        The ACA is a republican designed [Heritage Foundation] program weakened by adding various changes sought by republican congress critters who had no intention of voting for it. I am one of those that when asked by pollsters indicated dissatifaction with the ACA, not because I oppose it in principle but because it doesn’t go far enough. President Obama a socialist LOL this guy is no more a leftest than Ike or Nixon. In the days of the 60’s he would be to the right of Nelson Rockefeller probably close to Sen. Everett M. Dirksen. A COMMIE hah ha ha hah give me a break.

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