Obama’s Problem: Where is Mr. Empathizer-in-Chief?

Malik Neal, Columnist

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Speaking from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, then candidate Senator Obama delivered a sobering speech about what he labeled “The Great Need of The Hour.” The 30-minute speech drew a capacity crowd, and some even were watching from outside the church despite the frigid weather. At one point in the speech, Obama received exceptional applause and praise from the audience when he spoke the following words: “[Lack of empathy] is the essential deficit that exists in this country.” He went on,  “I’m talking about 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.”

Sadly, the rhetoric of candidate Obama does not match the actions of President Obama. President Obama is not seen as empathetic; rather he is view as a shrewd, detached and even an arrogant President. Here lies Obama’s problem. If he does have empathy for the unemployed and the miseries that accompany them, he certainly does not show it in a credible fashion. The citizens must feel that the President hears them, and is part of them, and thus responds to their needs. Appearing to remain aloof and offering intellectual arguments will not engender a warm response from the voting public.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof poignantly stated in his op-ed on the day after Election Day, “Obama needs to connect better with American voters. He needs to lose the cool and start sweating—and slugging.”

Recent election results for the U.S. Congress, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate have shown significant gains for the Republican Party. Pundits and commentators of various stripes and in different media have speculated on the reasons for this phenomenon and its meaning for Presidents. Many have  rightly suggested that the economy and unfocused voter anger against incumbents are widely perceived to be responsible for Tuesday’s results, but a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the entire political process and its ability to govern and effect necessary changes is front and center now. In order to address the issues raised by voter dissatisfaction the President must have his hand on the pulse of the body politic. To feel the pulse of the public, and discern its mood, the President must be seen as empathizing with them, or at least, be perceived as such.

The recent passage of Healthcare legislation is a case in point. The President was so ideologically committed to it that he wanted it passed no matter the cost in political capital, and more importantly, the cost in public perception of the legislative process, i.e., how the voters perceived this titanic struggle in Congress to get the bill passed. There was so much collateral damage done to the image of the Democrats, who controlled Congress that it gave the impression that they weren’t in control during the legislative process. This was because the President wanted the bill passed at all costs to make good on his campaign pledge for health care. His no-compromise idealism led to the extreme positions of both sides and consequent fraying of the political process with the public watching the internecine warfare from the sidelines and seeing Washington more gridlocked than ever.

This all stemmed from the President’s inability to take the public pulse and realize its fatigue with political infighting in Washington. Once again, it was how the bill was passed that counted, not so much its contents. Public fatigue with the political process gives birth to voter frustration with incumbents.

Some have argued and will continue to argue that Obama’s role is not to empathize—in other words, he should not, as some have called it, be Empathizer-in-Chief. What critics like this fail to realize, however, is that politics is all about emotion. Presidential leadership is about an emotional connection with the American people. Emotional connection is how we relate to our leaders and to one another.

Take former president Bill Clinton, who was a master of political empathy. His famous by-line, “I feel your pain,” became a symbol of Clinton’s connection with the American people. It did not matter whether he really did or not, all that mattered was that he was publicly perceived as doing so. In an interview with Politico, former president Clinton had the following advice for President Obama:

“He’s [Obama] 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.”

President Obama needs to hear and feel voters’ concerns. When he spoke in Atlanta during the campaign, he was right; lack of empathy is the essential deficit that exists in this country. Unfortunately, President Obama has become a prime example of that very fact. While the American people hurt, President Obama seems distance and removed from reality. He must let go of his unflappable and cerebral aura and seem like he feels voters’ pain. He must be empathetic. Whether he does this will not only determine his chances for a second term, but will shape the nation’s economic and political future for the next several years.

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One Response to Obama’s Problem: Where is Mr. Empathizer-in-Chief?

  1. Ernest Miller, FSC says:

    Your article contains grains of truth.

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