This is all over the news today as a topic/concept because of President Obama’s apology yesterday as relates to the ‘keep your plan’ idea; NPR even has a rundown of the recent history of Presidential apologies, going back (on their link, at least) to this classic:
The search for the first-ever Presidential apology is a bit tricker, especially given the advent of media, then televised media, then 24-7 roadblocked media. George Washington apologized to a man named Payne for insulting him in 1755, although he wasn’t yet President (he was campaigning for a Virginia legislature seat at that juncture). John Adams acknowledged the ‘wrongness’ of slavery, but never offered a public apology on that topic. Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe had a few run-ins with less-than-stellar behavior; this led to Hamilton apologies, although Hamilton was never President. Via this UPenn list, the first notable Presidential apology came from Lincoln (logical). After the 1970s, they became far more commonplace. This is one of the earliest you’ll find on the Interwebs today:
Regardless of your politics and your views on whether Obama’s most recent apology can even be classified as such, the power of apology is an interesting topic. This paper is about apology and historical reconciliation, which ties deeply into the work of Presidents; this one attempts to clarify the role of apology in crisis communication. And this one discusses the commodification of apology, which ties back to the sincerity attached to the message. Although phrased in more of a corporate context, this HBR article talks about when (and when not) for a leader to apologize; it brings up the idea that as a culture, America has become very apology-prone, as exemplified in Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology. Too many apologies, though, can create a boy-who-cried wolf-type situation; that’s not good for the current Presidential climate.
That apology, currently the highest-ranked for ‘Presidential apology’ searches on YouTube, seemed to be a bigger deal at the time; the woman scorned in that situation could become the next President of the U.S. and the ‘other woman’ there is essentially hiding in plain sight. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s popularity, years on, is significantly higher than it was immediately after he left office.
In short answer, they can … but it’s often about the message, the medium, and the consistency of the follow-through; those are going to be hard for any President in the current political climate, but probably moreso for Obama, who oftentimes can come off as ‘slick,’ which might pre-dispose people to be less trusting of any apology he issues.
It’s an interesting topic at the intersection of leadership notions and psychology studies, which means research-based universities should be having a field day with it. In the meantime, to bring this down on a lighter note, check out this video off the Obama apology for the Kamala Harris remarks: