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Finally, a president who takes responsibility

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
President Obama says "the buck stops with me" when it comes to security failures in the attempted attack on a U.S.-bound jet.
President Obama says "the buck stops with me" when it comes to security failures in the attempted attack on a U.S.-bound jet.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala recalls that George W. Bush couldn't name his biggest mistake
  • He says Bush administration never owned up for grave errors
  • He says Obama set a refreshing tone by saying the buck stops with him
  • Begala: In taking responsibility, Obama did right thing for the country
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Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is an affiliated professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

(CNN) -- Midway through his presidency, George W. Bush was asked by the journalist John Dickerson to name his biggest mistake since 9/11 and what he'd learned from it. Here's what he said:

"Hmmm... I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. Uhhh...(six-second pause)

"John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could've done it better this way or that way. Uhhh...(five second pause). You know, I just -- uhhh - I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet. ..."

Bush then babbled about how he would not have done anything differently in Afghanistan, how Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and how he was confident the truth would come out about weapons of mass destruction (Well, he was right about that.). After filling air and killing time with that nonsense, he tried to return to Dickerson's question. But Bush's eyes looked like a slot machine that had just hit BAR-APPLE-LEMON. He said:

"I hope -- I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- heh, heh -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

(You can see it for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haQzdW7hg4A )

One of the biggest reasons Barack Obama is president -- and a Nobel Peace Prize winner -- is that he's not George W. Bush. This week he proved that again.

Whereas Bush couldn't name a single mistake -- not, say, letting Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora, or refusing to allow weapons inspectors to ascertain that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, or backing economic policies that took the greatest budget surplus in American history and turned it into the biggest deficit in history -- Obama has stepped up.

His statement on Tuesday was close, but no cigar. Refreshingly he acknowledged screw-ups and pledged to get to the bottom of the mistakes and correct them. He said, "The system has failed in a potentially disastrous way. ... The intelligence community failed to connect those dots."

That was a good start, but it didn't go far enough for me -- nor, apparently, for our president. Because on Thursday he took full responsibility. "Ultimately," he said, "the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility."

Hallelujah! The president also released a report detailing the failures that allowed a man to very nearly kill 300 people on Christmas Day, he has ordered the government to enhance screening and detection, to increase the use of federal air marshals and to improve the dissemination and integration of intelligence. In short, our president is taking his responsibility to protect us more seriously than his political instinct to protect his own backside. What a change, what a relief, what a difference.

In taking responsibility, Barack Obama did the right thing for our country and his presidency. He also showed that a skinny, thoughtful community organizer has a lot more guts than a blustering Ivy Leaguer posing as a cowboy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.