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Obama and Empathy, Part I

Date posted: Friday, June 8, 2012

The President’s unique ability to consider both sides.

Image via ABC News

Image via ABC News

As you are probably aware, President Obama hates the rich, which is why the rich are struggling in America today.

Neither of these is true, of course, though you might be confused from the way Republicans howl to the heavens that Obama denigrates and demonizes the poor rich. These accusations seem to stand on three major planks, all of which have more to do with rhetoric than policy: in December of 2011, Obama delivered a speech in Kansas criticizing America’s growing inequality. Recently, his campaign has attacked Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital. And once upon a time—in December of 2009—he referred to “fat cat bankers on Wall Street.” Republicans will weave in policy complaints—Obama’s desire to raise taxes on the rich, or the increase in regulation—but it is his rhetoric and tone toward the rich, toward business, that they most often complain about.

This is ludicrous. Obama has said, about a million times, that he loves the rich. He has said that “the success of the American economy depends not on the efforts of government, but on the innovation and enterprise of America’s businesses.” He has said that “the free market is the greatest force for economic prosperity on earth.”

You might say that Obama says these things because he has to, because the financial industry is mightier than God, and because he relies on these people for campaign donations, and there is surely some truth to this.

Regardless, let’s not spend too much time on the “Republicans say Obama hates the rich, but actually he doesn’t hate them; in fact, they’re doing quite well under his administration” angle, because you can read about that in a thousand other places on the internet. That Obama hates the rich is one of those claims, along with “Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism,” that has embedded itself in the conservative construction of our President, and it will require something much stronger than fact to remove. (This second claim, about exceptionalism, requires its own column. Fortunately, Romney will surely level this charge yet again some time this summer or fall, giving us opportunity to discuss it whenever it occurs.)

But in investigating this claim, and looking at the mountain of evidence that rebuts it, I was reminded anew of one of Obama’s most consistent traits: his efforts, almost to the point of parody, to consider both sides, to move to the middle, to reach out to opponents. Again, I am not speaking here of policy, but of tone and consideration; put aside, for the moment, Obama’s repeated efforts to broker a deal with John Boehner in advance of last fall’s debt ceiling.

It is not exactly groundbreaking, of course, to note that to this former community organizer, who ran on a (somewhat) post-partisan campaign of bringing people together and who wrote in The Audacity of Hope that empathy is one of his core values, likes to view both sides of an issue. But it is most interesting when Obama aims for a certain type of empathy—not the soft, gooey kind conservatives hated so much during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, but the sort of muscular empathy Atlantic blogger Ta Nehesi Coates has written about: an empathy that does not mean sympathy—which is what many of us believe empathy means—but which involves putting yourself in the shoes of others and asking tough questions about what life is like for them and what you would do in those shoes.

In next week’s column, we’ll consider more broadly empathy and its role in American politics. For now, let me highlight two strange, completely different, and not entirely successful examples of Obama’s attempts at empathy:

First, his groundbreaking interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, from early May, in which he came out in favor of gay marriage. Early in the interview, Obama notes, “I was sensitive to the fact that—for a lot of people, you know, the—the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.”

And then later in the interview:

I think its important to recognize that—folks—who—feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as—between a man and a woman—many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And—they—they have a different understanding, in terms of—you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I—a bunch of ‘em are friends of mine—you know, pastors and—you know, people who—I deeply respect.”

And then again!:

And—and—as I said, I want to—I want to emphasize—that—I’ve got a lot of friends—on the other side of this issue. You know, I’m sure they’ll be callin’ me up and—and I respect them. And I understand their perspective, in part, because—their impulse is the right one. Which is they want to—they want to preserve and strengthen families.

What other politician, in an interview designed to trumpet a major game changer when it comes to his party’s stance on a civil rights issue, would highlight, again and again and again, the fair-mindedness and good intentions of the opposition? What other politician would not just say that he respects a difference of opinion, but would go even further in imagining their motives?

The second example: even Obama’s most famous gaffe, in April of 2008, was born of an attempt to get into the brains of others. You may be familiar with the core takeaway line that got all the press: people in small towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or apathy toward people who aren’t like them.” It sounds like an indictment, and it is. But Obama’s full quote is also an attempt to understand:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

I find this astonishing. Perhaps for both its honesty and for its empathy, doomed as it may be. The diagnosis may be harsh. But it is the polar opposite of the sort of harshness so often employed by politicians. Hermain Cain’s callous and simplistic “if you’re not rich, ‘blame yourself” shtick comes to mind.

Next week: empathy in politics, Part II

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

View all posts by Ben Hoffman →


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