Early in his campaign, Barack Obama said "I'm human and I'm going to make mistakes." But as the election campaign wore on and Obama racked up impressive victories first in the primaries and then in the general election, there was a growing feeling among his supporters and even some in the press that he could do no wrong. Obama himself joked about this at the traditional Al Smith dinner when he said, "Contrary to rumors you may have heard, I was not born in a manger."
The minor stumbles of the past few weeks, from the invitation of Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration, to the slow response to the Blagojevich scandal, to the bungled nominating process of Leon Panetta, have proven that Obama is indeed human, prone to mistakes like all the rest of us. As insignificant as these early failures have been, they are important milestones which Obama must cross to govern effectively.
Remember for a moment the disasters wrought by the Bush administration, from the invasion and conduct of the war in Iraq to the bungling of Hurricane Katrina relief to the heinous lack of oversight of the financial industry. All of these were brought about by a single-minded determination to avoid failure - or at least the appearance of failure. "Failure is not an option" could easily have been the slogan of the Bush years, a credo that ultimately led to fiasco after fiasco.
Not only is failure an option, it is an imperative. Leaders who actively seek to avoid failure are destined to choose the most expedient, and therefore the most treacherous path. Only by embracing failure can we test our mettle as a country and finally succeed in our goals. If we are afraid to fail, we will simply become mired in the status quo, following over and over again a path that leads nowhere.
When Franklin Roosevelt said that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," he was speaking most specifically about our fear of failure. Again and again, FDR tackled the challenge of a struggling economy and a staggering political system, trying out new programs and then quickly jettisoning them when they failed. Without its many failures, Roosevelt's New Deal would never have become a success.
Obama also needs to fail to strengthen his political mandate. Through his mistakes and missteps, he can establish the depth and breadth of his support. If his supporters on the left abandon him over his centrist positions on social issues or the economy, or if the right wing is able to capitalize on his failure to swiftly end the fiscal crisis, then his mandate will fade, perhaps quickly. But if he can steer a course that alienates only some of his core supporters, while drawing in the mainstream of the country to his vision of change, he will have built the foundation for success.
For too long, Americans have been fed the "win at any cost" mantra, which divides the world into winners and losers, and ignores our responsibility to our communities, our nation and our planet. It is time for us to change that credo, and we can begin by acknowledging that mistakes are not only human, but they are also critical ingredients to success. And we also should remember that both the failures and the successes do not belong to Barack Obama, or any other one individual, but to all of us.