In the presidency, in particular, it's hard to get good advice about your failures because so many people who work for you are awed by the office. Or they are in such a permanent state of partisan siege that they stay quiet for the sake of the cause. (Former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell is the exception; he seems to identify a new mistake Obama is making every day). A candidate's ability to see mistakes suggests they can tolerate candid advice from subordinates, which could short-circuit extended calamity. Presidents are criticized all day long. How they know what's worth ignoring and what's worth heeding gives us insight into how good their judgment really is.
There are countless aphorisms on coffee cups, inspirational posters, and daily calendars devoted to the benefits of failure as a learning device, but our candidates will never show us how they have reaped those benefits, or more important, whether they're able to find benefit in failure at all. We should know if they are pig-headed, obstinate, or willing to “stay the course” out of psychological neediness.
Ronald Reagan put all of this nicely: ''What should happen when you make a mistake is this. You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That's the healthiest way to deal with a problem. You learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change.''
Reagan was admitting that his administration had tried to trade arms for hostages. His is among the few modern presidents to admit he made a mistake. Kennedy took his lumps after the Bay of Pigs, too. Those two cases were extreme. Each man had to do something to recoup their reputation after a devastating blow to their administrations. Perhaps it's a sign of political health for Obama that he hasn't been forced to apologize for any huge disaster.
For anyone who has watched the current campaign fishtail from one absurd, out-of-context gaffe to another, the president's dodge probably seems smart. Self-reflection might be lovely and desirable, but self-immolation is dumb. Obama is not running for president in a therapy session full of compassionate listeners. He's running in whatever is the polar opposite of that. So we'll just have to take it on faith that he and his opponent know how to handle mistakes. Because we generally only learn if they can admit that they have made a mistake when it’s a really big one.