The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yellen wisely admitted error on inflation. The White House should follow her example.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on May 10. (Tom Williams/AP)
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Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen did a remarkable thing on Tuesday: She admitted to making a mistake.

“I think I was wrong then about the path that inflation would take,” she said in a CNN interview. “As I mentioned, there have been unanticipated and large shocks to the economy that have boosted energy and food prices and supply bottlenecks that have affected our economy badly that I didn’t — at the time — didn’t fully understand, but we recognize that now.”

Yellen’s mistaken views, of course, reflected a consensus view at the time among economists, as Post contributing columnist and former treasury secretary Larry Summers — one of the few people who correctly predicted the full extent of the inflation threat — acknowledged.

Still, few people at the White House are ready to concede that they “got it wrong." While Republicans certainly would make a to-do about such an admission, it would not be the end of the world — and might add to President Biden’s credibility — if the White House simply reiterated the facts.

For example: The Federal Reserve and most economists concluded inflation would be transitory. This is why the Fed kept interest rates so low for so long. The subsequent hike in fuel costs stemming from the war in Ukraine and persistent challenges in ramping up production to meet demand aggravated rising prices. By the same token, economic predictions of a multi-year recession with high unemployment did not pan out due to the administration’s actions. Going forward, the focus of the Fed and the White House will be on taming inflation.

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Really, how hard would that be?

Whether it is the withdrawal from Afghanistan or the baby formula shortage or the invasion of Ukraine, critics will always allege that a president “should have known” or “should have acted sooner" in times of crisis. But it is often unknowable whether quicker action would have made any difference. (Arguably, the administration was not “slow” to help Ukraine but instead modified military aid to the country as events played out.) And it is usually the case that critics would not have done better under the same circumstances.

That said, the difference between the Trump administration, which was driven by the desire to serve the ego of a delusional narcissist, and a “normal” presidency acting in good faith is that the former was premised on the lie of an all-knowing, perfect leader, whereas the latter can own its mistakes. Presidents who do not seek cult status understand that democracies are effective in large part because leaders can raise issues, learn from errors and adjust.

It’s not hard to figure out why politicians (like most of us) don’t like to admit error. It empowers their opponents and can demoralize supporters. But President Ronald Reagan admitted selling arms to the contras was a mistake. President Barack Obama made quick admission of error in pushing for former senator Tom Daschle to be health and human services secretary. President John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs blunder. None of these admissions doomed their presidencies.

By acknowledging error, presidents can cut the media frenzy short, model responsible conduct for those in their administration and allow focus to shift to the president and future. And as Yellen demonstrated, one can enhance their credibility by stating what is obvious to everyone else. This White House would be smart to practice some radical candor. It might even surprise a restless press corps.