Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Obama and Empathy, Part II: Follow Bill Clinton

Obama and Empathy, Part II: Follow Bill Clinton

Photograph via the AP

Editor’s note: This is Ben Hoffman’s second article about Obama and empathy. For last week’s, click here.

Numerous polls have found that Mitt Romney has an empathy gap. In an April Washington Post-ABC News poll, respondents said by a 49-37% margin that Barack Obama better understands the economic problems faced by Americans. A January YouGov poll determined that Obama has advantages on the questions “cares about people like me,” “cares about the poor,” and “cares about the middle class.”

This is not surprising. Romney is richer than some small countries; he has said he is not worried about the poor and that he likes being able to fire people; he is building a car elevator during a recession; he tried to make a $10,000 bet; he strapped his dog to the car roof all those years ago; he may or may not be a cyborg from an unfeeling future . . .

As my colleague Ian Cheney put it, “In Mitt Romney, we have a confluence of an elite, unknowable lifestyle with a convenient, weathervane ideology.” This also sums up exactly how many conservatives feel about Obama. Neither candidate is exactly master of the populist touch. But, it seems to me, there is no doubt that people think Obama, professorial as he may be, relates to their problems better than Romney.

Washington Post political writers Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake believe this empathy gap is of paramount importance:

Presidential elections are rarely won and lost on policy. Voters instead tend to choose the person they most want to be president based on who they like. And that feeling is heavily influenced by which of the candidates they believe best understands their hopes and dreams . . . In our mind, tracking how the two candidates perform on this question between now and November is the single best measure (or at least one of them) of how the race will turn out. In times of economic uncertainty—and this very clearly is one (three-quarters of people think the economy is still in recession in the Post-ABC poll)—feeling like you have a president who “gets” you is hugely critical . . . Romney must—MUST—close the empathy gap to win this fall.

But must he? Is there some sort of rule about this? As the New York Timess Nate Silver noted, Republicans win all the time despite being perceived as less empathetic than their Democratic opponents. It can be hard to sort out the disparate effects on an election, but Cillizza and Blake are wrong that the empathy gap will be the single best measure of the race. It’s important, sure, but the economy is the single biggest factor in the election, and the fact that it’s lagging distorts all the other factors. Cillizza and Blake suggest that a tough economy means the question of empathy gains importance. This makes sense, but it’s just as plausible that if voters become desperate enough, the issue will matter less. People believe that Obama feels their pain. But increasingly, they’re unsure that he can do anything about it. Romney may not be empathetic. But if he can fix the economy, who cares about feelings?

Talking about empathy in politics brings us to Bill Clinton.

The time is October of 1992. The place is Richmond, Virginia. The event is the first-ever town hall debate.

An audience member asks the candidates, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Ross Perot goes first; he mumbles about his grandchildren. Next up is George H. W. Bush. He starts by checking his watch; later, he joked that he was thinking, “Only 10 more minutes of this crap,” which is more or less what the gesture suggested at the time. Then Bush gives a rambling, confused, and somewhat defensive answer. (Some of his confusion stems from the questioner mixing up the debt and the recession, which are completely different things, but would it be American politics if average voters weren’t displaying massive amounts of confusion and ignorance about the economy?)

Enter Bill Clinton:

The whole thing is classic Clinton. He steps toward the questioner and says gently, “Tell me how it’s affected you again.” He looks straight at her with those sensitive, hound-dog, tired-from-campaigning eyes. (Bill Clinton: very good at looking deeply into women’s eyes!) By the end of his answer, the questioner is nodding along vigorously, and Bush has a massive “Oh, shit, I’m not in Kennebunkport anymore” look plastered across his face.

The previous debate, more formal in nature, had not produced a clear winner, but this one did. A CNN/USA Today poll conducted after the debate found that 58% named Clinton the winner, compared to 16% for Bush and 15% for Perot. And since the moment played into the narrative that Bush was out of touch, and since Clinton went on to win the election, it became one of those moments that took on deeper meaning. On YouTube, it is Clinton’s “Debate Moment.” Politico named it one of the all-time great political debate moments. Political scientists have studied the candidates’ visual signals from that town hall debate.

And yet the moment may not have mattered at all. Bush’s job approval ratings; the percentage of voters satisfied with the direction of the country; the country’s Economic Confidence Index—all these were at levels suggesting Bush would have lost the 1992 election regardless.

And now, again, in 2012, these same factors suggest that Obama is struggling, and that Romney could well win the presidency.

Which brings us back to the substance of Clinton’s answer. Here was the argument he made:

We are in the grip of a failed economic theory. And this decision you’re about to make better be about what kind of economic theory you want. Not just people saying, I want to go fix it, but what are we going to do.

This is exactly the sort of conversation Obama needs to have with voters. A conversation not only about empathy, about who feels whose pain more, but also about policy—about what each candidate will do to try to fix that pain. Because in the end, policy does matter at least a little, right?

Next week: Empathy, Part III