Obama and Empathy: Is He Too Cool?

The president who has talked most about the power of empathy suddenly seems to be lacking in it himself. Kirsten Powers on how his coolness is getting in the way of his heart.

Barack Obama (Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo)

Does Barack Obama suffer from an “empathy deficit?"

Ironically, it was Obama who used the phrase in a 2008 speech when he diagnosed the United States as suffering from the disorder. In a plea for unity, candidate Obama said lack of empathy was “the essential deficit that exists in this country.” He defined it as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Yet, as president, Obama has demonstrated an almost pathological incapacity to connect with American’s fear and despair over the future. Whether it was the Gulf oil spill or a woman's heartbreaking pleading at a recent town hall meeting, Obama’s much ballyhooed coolness seems more icy than reassuring.

Nobody is asking Obama to have a meltdown. That would hardly be presidential. What Americans need is, yes, for Obama to feel their pain.

This should not be news to the president considering how highly he has valued this trait throughout his public career.

He believes empathy is critical to being a good Supreme Court Justice, declaring his opposition to now Chief Justice John Roberts because, he says, Roberts was short on that important quality. In defining what he looks for in a Supreme Court Justice, Obama put empathy at the top of his list: "I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Indeed, the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has chronicled the nearly 60 speeches, debates, interviews, and writings where Obama has lectured Americans on the importance of empathy. In the The Audacity of Hope, he wrote, “[Empathy] is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.” In nearly every commencement speech he delivers, Obama offers students some version of this line and decries the nation’s “empathy deficit.”

In 2004, he told Charlie Rose, “I see the empathy deficit that damages so much of our politics.”

In his 2007 Selma Speech, he called it an “empathy gap.”

And at a 2008 rally in Westerville, Ohio, Obama said, “One of the values that I think men in particular have to pass on is the value of empathy. Not sympathy, empathy. And what that means is standing in somebody else's shoes, being able to look through their eyes. You know, sometimes we get so caught up in 'us' that it's hard to see that there are other people and that your behavior has an impact on them.”

Yes, President Obama, sometimes that does happen. Take a look in the mirror. Nothing brought this problem into relief like the two Obama supporters who confronted the president at a recent town hall meeting expressing total despair over their economic situation and hopelessness about the future. Rather than expressing empathy, Obama seemed annoyed and proceeded with one of his unhelpful lectures.

No wonder a recent ABC/Washington Post poll found nearly half of all Americans don't believe he understands the problems of people like themselves. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found Friday that only 42 percent of Americans approve of how Obama's is doing his job; 50 percent disapprove of his performance. A solid majority of all Americans—56 percent—say that Obama has fallen short of their expectations.

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What Americans need is, yes, for Obama to feel their pain.

Some Obama backers will cry that it’s not Obama’s job to be Empathizer-in-Chief. This could not be more misguided. In fact, one of the most important roles of a president is an ability to lead the electorate through tough times. If he can’t do that, then he will lose power and the ability to enact policies.

No former president better proves this point than FDR. Jonathan Alter recalled in Newsweek, “In February of 1933…with the banks closed and millions of Americans wiped out, FDR used his ‘first-class temperament’ to treat the mental depression of Americans without curing their economic one. In the days following his ‘fear itself’ Inaugural and first ‘Fireside Chat,’ the same citizens who had lined up the month before to withdraw their last savings from the bank (and stuff it under the mattress or tape it to their chests) lined up to redeposit patriotically. This astounding act of ebullient leadership marked the ‘defining moment’ of modern American politics…”

Matthew Yglesias: Get Off Your Butts, DemsKirsten Powers: The Dems Aren’t ToastOne former Emoter-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, told Politico last week, “[Obama’s] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring. So he needs to turn into it. I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him. He needs to hear it. You need to hear. Embrace people’s anger, including their disappointment at you. And just ask ‘em to not let the anger cloud their judgment. Let it concentrate their judgment. And then make your case.”

Then the kicker: “[Obama has] got to realize that, in the end, it’s not about him. It’s about the American people, and they’re hurting.”


Hopefully Obama is listening.

Kirsten Powers is a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.