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The contemporary presidency: the political utility of empathy in presidential leadership.

President Barack Obama made headlines during consideration of new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when he repeatedly stated that the personal quality of empathy would play a decisive role in the selection process. When Justice David Sourer announced his retirement, Obama vowed he would nominate someone who understands "how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives--whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation" (Obama 2009a). Even after pundits, politicians, and legal scholars took aim at Obama's inclusion of empathy as a required criterion for nomination to the high court, the president never wavered in his pronouncement) Obama's belief that empathy plays an essential role in political judgment is worthy of headlines because a president has never stated its importance so explicitly. Nonetheless, empathy has played an influential role in presidential leadership throughout American history, and has figured prominently in recent presidential administrations.

Empathy has the power to alter opinions, strengthen relationships, and foster an understanding of unshared circumstances or experiences. Martin Hoffman has developed the accepted psychological definition of empathy today: "Empathy is an affective response more appropriate to another's situation than one's own" (2000, 4). Notice that empathy requires a person to feel a shared emotion for the same reason the other person experiences it.

Empathy is the recognition or perception of another person's emotions. In simplest terms, empathy is feeling what another person feels (Hoffman 2000, 30). Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is the expression of compassion for someone else. Empathy is a distinct emotion because it requires an individual to feel the emotions of another human being. Psychologists have demonstrated that people do not possess the ability to express empathy uniformly; some individuals are more readily adept at empathetic behavior. (2)

Empathy may be particularly important in extended democratic republics such as the United States. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argued that small republics are preferable because the identification of the common good is sacrificed in a large republic (1989, 124). However, the presence of empathy in democratic leadership might help mitigate Montesquieu's concerns. A democratic leader in a large republic cannot understand the hardships of all of the citizens he governs. But the ability to empathize enables him to acknowledge and consider the problems of others. Empathy is not a perfect substitute for Montesquieu's "eternal republican" (1989, 131) ideal of the Swiss cantons, but it can provide valuable information for democratic leaders to discern the fuzzy outline of a common good.

Political scientists have paid little attention to the importance of empathy in politics and, in particular, to its importance as a critical leadership trait in American politicians. (3) With a comparatively weak party system in the United States, the American presidency has always been a highly personalized institution. The democratization of the presidential selection process and primary system has only intensified the importance of individual character traits and personality. Quite astutely, journalist Howard Fineman (2001) observed that Americans expect their president to serve as "empathizer in chief."

This article analyzes the importance of empathy in presidential leadership. Four presidents will be examined: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Abraham Lincoln. While Clinton may have overplayed his empathetic skill, Bush is a telling example of leadership lacking in empathy. In the middle, Lincoln is an example of a president who used his empathy to enhance his political leadership and decision making. I conclude with several observations concerning President Obama's emphasis on empathy, and his continuing quest to emulate the spirit of Lincoln in his leadership.

Empathy as a Concept

The word "empathy" comes from the Greek word meaning "to make suffer." As stated earlier, empathy is commonly confused or conflated with sympathy. While empathy actually requires feeling another person's emotions, sympathy entails feeling compassion for another human being. I may feel sorry for a friend's unfortunate situation, but empathy would require me to share in my friend's pain.

Empathy is a relatively new concept in the fields of philosophy and psychology. Robert Vischer in Das optische Formgefuhl (1873) first discussed empathy as a psychological concept. He asserted that because a work of art can affect muscular and emotional attitudes in a viewing subject, the subject thereby experiences those feelings as qualities of the object. Pleasure from beauty can be explained as self-enjoyment in which the subject and object are fused. In his work, Vischer used the term einfuhlung, or "feelingin," as the basis of empathy as a concept. Like most German thought of that time period, Vischer's theory stemmed from Kantian philosophy and the notion that beauty originated with the observer rather than from the object itself (Gauss 2003). The German philosopher Theodor Lipps developed a more elaborate conceptual framework for einfuhlung. His analysis moved einfuhlung from Vischer's focus on aesthetics to the more comprehensive study of philosophy of the human and social sciences (Stueber 2008).

In 1909, the word "empathy" was first employed by the English psychologist Edward Titchener as a translation of the German einfuhlung. Titchener coined the term because he wanted a word that was distinct in meaning from sympathy (Urban 2006, 36). While the concept of empathy eventually faded in mainstream philosophical circles, empathy thrived within the study of human psychology. There are two general research trajectories in psychology that focus on empathy. One is empathetic accuracy, which attempts to measure how precisely humans can perceive the emotions of another. The other tradition focuses on the measurement of empathy and how empathy influences individual moral development.

Recent psychological work on empathy has resulted in more precise conceptual definitions. For example, psychological research has made a distinction between "emotional contagion" and empathy. Emotional contagion refers to a similar emotional reaction resulting from shared experiences. If other moviegoers start to cry during a sad movie, I may cry. This is not attributable to empathy, but to emotional contagion. Empathy requires a vicarious sharing of emotion. In psychology, this phenomenon is commonly known as "affective empathy" (Stueber 2008). Cognitive recognition of another person's situation must occur. A mother may experience happiness when she witnesses her child enjoying himself. But it is only an empathetic experience if her emotional response is generated by the same trigger that made her child happy. Hoffman's definition insists that empathy include a self-aware congruence of emotions (2000, 4).

Hoffman also argues that empathy plays an important role in moral agency. (4) As a biological reaction, empathy can provide the moral motivation for action or judgment. Although it is typically thought of as a stimulus for moral behavior or choice, empathy can also aid in the development of moral principles, such as justice and equality (Hoffman 2000, 17). There is some debate about when humans begin to exhibit empathetic behavior. Some studies indicate that infants can respond emotionally to the distress of others. However, it is generally accepted that empathy develops with age (Bengtsson and Johnson 1987, 1001). Neuroscientific research has solidified empathy's role in human behavior. For example, magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the brain reacts similarly when a subject actually experiences pain or believes that someone else in the room is experiencing pain. The scientific discovery of neural mechanisms that mediate empathy contributes to the generally accepted conclusion that empathy plays a fundamental role in human social interaction and response (Lamm, Batson, and Decety 2007).

Abraham Lincoln's Model of Empathy

Abraham Lincoln frequently told a story of traveling down the Mississippi River in 1831 as a hired hand. When he arrived in New Orleans, Lincoln witnessed the savage cruelties of slavery for the first time in his life. His cousin and traveling companion said when Lincoln saw the maltreatment, "his heart bled." According to his legal partner William Herndon, this trip strongly influenced Lincoln's political opinion of slavery (Cawardine 2006, 21). Lincoln also recalled an 1841 riverboat trip in a letter to Joshua Speed:

You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. (Lincoln 1855)

Historical anecdotes demonstrate that Lincoln possessed a high capacity for empathy throughout his life. This predisposition set him apart from other political actors of his time period, and also distinguishes him from presidents throughout American history.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln possessed "an acute sensitivity to the pains and injustices he perceived in the world" (2005b, 103). Evidence indicates that Lincoln's emotional response to others in distress qualifies as empathy. Lincoln did not merely feel sympathy for another person, but, as Goodwin describes, it was common for him to feel actual pain as a response. He was also self-aware of his empathetic response, once returning a half mile to rescue a pig stuck in the mud. A friend recalled that Lincoln admitted the reason for his action was not to save the pig, but "just to take the pain out of his own mind" (Goodwin 2005a). An example concerning a human being rather than an animal is even more illustrative. After breaking off his first engagement with Mary Todd, Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed that Mary's unhappiness "kills my soul." Lincoln felt her pain acutely, and his empathy for her situation may have led to his eventual decision to marry her (Shenk 2005, 51).

Lincoln did not merely possess a strategic mind, although he excelled at political calculation. Even as a political novice, with empathy as his guide, Lincoln possessed an innate ability to intuit the motivations of his interlocutors. As a member of the state legislature in Illinois, Lincoln displayed an uncanny ability to forecast his opposition's strategy. After he left the legislature, his former Whig partisans called upon him to help determine the Democrats' next moves and what their response should be (Goodwin 2005a). Helen Nicolay, the daughter of Lincoln's private secretary, observed that Lincoln's "crowning gift of political diagnosis was due to his sympathy ... which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do" (Goodwin 2005b, 104). When Lincoln began to display this prowess, he had been involved in politics for a short period of time; political experience did not enable him to know how his adversaries would act. Rather, Lincoln's gift originated from within. He was smart enough to utilize his emotions in a strategic manner, but the origin of his knowledge was empathy, something that he was likely born with--a rare quality of political leadership that contributes to the very essence of his greatness.

Lincoln's empathy was probably a direct cause of the melancholy he endured throughout most of his life. William Herndon observed that Lincoln's "melancholy dripped from him as he walked" (Shenk 2005, 4). Melancholy refers to a familiar anguish that arises from the very "reflection of existence" (Shenk 2005, 26). Whereas Lincoln's persistent melancholy would probably be perceived as a political liability today, his contemporaries often admired his extreme sensitivities and ability to feel the agony of the human spirit (Shenk 2005, 31). Unlike modern politicians, Lincoln refrained from revealing personal details about his feelings, yet he showed no reservation in displaying the suffering that sometimes overwhelmed him (Shenk 2005, 133).

Lincoln's empathy had no greater impact than on the formation of his opinion concerning slavery. Michael Burlingame observed that in his youth, Lincoln was "like a slave to his father" (1994, 37), as he was forced to work for neighbors and turn over all of the money he earned. Herndon commented that Lincoln's performance in court excelled when he represented someone who had been abused. The reason for this, according to Herndon, was that Lincoln felt he had been abused as a child, and could identify with those in a similar situation. Herndon concluded that after 1854, Lincoln became "an attorney for all slaves" (Burlingame 1994, 37).

In this sense, Lincoln was in a position to feel empathy with the slaves. Gabor Boritt concluded that Lincoln self-identified with the "downtrodden black man" (1978, 173). One of Lincoln's strongest objections to slavery was that it was tantamount to stealing the fruits of one's labor. A friend of Lincoln's recalled that Lincoln gave a speech in which he stated, "We were all slaves one time or another." The difference is that "white men could make themselves free and the Negroes could not." His closest professional relationship with an African American stemmed from recognition of Lincoln's empathy. Frederick Douglass believed that any rapport or connection he shared with Lincoln stemmed from Lincoln's ability to understand poverty (Shenk 2005, 202).

On the other end of the spectrum, Lincoln also understood the situation of the slave owners. Lincoln did not "upbraid slave owners" (Goodwin 2005b, 167). As much as he could, Lincoln tried to place himself in the position of the slave owners to better understand their point of view. Lincoln had done this earlier in his career with temperance advocates when he implored them from chastising drinkers. To win a man over, Lincoln argued in 1842, one must capture his heart--and then his reason. (5) When a group of people are shunned or branded as evil, the typical human reaction is to retreat. Lincoln wanted to avoid such an error with slave owners. Lincoln utilized his capacity for empathy to figure out a solution to the slavery crisis in the United States. There was a pragmatism attached to Lincoln's approach--he wanted to bolster his arguments with actual sentiments and experiences rather than abstract notions. Consequently, Lincoln argued that the slave owner was not immoral. Rather, the slave owner acted the way one would expect someone to act in his situation. Abolishing slavery might be a moral act, but the slave owner himself was not wholly evil. Lincoln's empathy enabled him to make a distinction between the individual and the institution.

Lincoln's empathy was not foolproof. Upon occasion, it led him down the wrong path. Prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln advocated for the colonization of freed slaves because of his deep concern that black Americans would never receive equal treatment. Lincoln's empathy for the situation of black Americans led him to adopt a policy without considering the attachment they felt for the United States (Goodwin 2005b, 470). In this instance, empathy--combined with rashness--pointed Lincoln initially in the wrong direction.

Lincoln's empathy may be admirable on a personal level, but such an observation does not say anything about why empathy is important to presidential leadership. Lincoln's empathy was critical to his political acumen in several ways. First and foremost, Lincoln understood that empathy can turn opponents into supporters. Goodwin's Team of Rivak is an extended explanation of how Lincoln turned his "rivals" into his indispensable "team." After Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, he knew that he had defeated others who had more experience than him. He might have embraced hubris and created formidable political enemies. Instead, he stroked bruised egos and gained several political allies. Lincoln transformed his enemies into his supporters throughout his career. Lincoln's relationships with Edward Baker, Norman Judd, John Palmer, Schuyler Colfax, and Horace Greeley illustrate his empathetic prowess (Miller 2006, 50).

Perhaps the most impressive display of empathy involved Edwin Stanton. After Stanton made it clear in 1855 that he thought Lincoln's talents as a lawyer were deficient and that his appearance resembled an "ape," there was no expectation that President Lincoln would associate with Stanton (Goodwin 2005b, 174). But recognizing his incredible work ethic and toughness, Lincoln selected Stanton as his secretary of war and developed a symbiotic and complementary relationship with him. Lincoln knew that Stanton had the stomach for the hard decisions he had to make, and put Stanton's sometimes sadistic tendencies to good use (Goodwin 2005b, 560). The deep bond between the two men was made possible by Lincoln's empathy.

Empathy also enables presidents to see the whole picture. Unlike members of Congress, the president is a national representative. Representing the entire nation is an impossible task, yet empathy can enable a president to comprehend the plight of others he does not know intimately. As president, Lincoln read a letter from a young woman whose father had been killed in the Civil War, and who had entered a dark depression after his death. Empathy enabled Lincoln to understand the meaning of the woman's suffering and not underestimate it (Shenk 2005, 189). His serious consideration of the letter also indicates that Lincoln believed such correspondence provided crucial information about the impact of the war and public opinion concerning it. Empathy involves a shared emotional experience and a close understanding of the other. Such knowledge can prove indispensable in a large democratic republic, where elected officials must make choices representing the whole without maintaining a close relationship with the governed.

Finally, empathy facilitates and encourages insightful rhetoric. A young man who heard President Lincoln speak in Ohio remarked that "to see Lincoln was to feel closely drawn to him" (Burlingame 1994, 11). The poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell observed that when Lincoln spoke, "it seem[ed] as if the people were listening to their own thinking aloud" (Burlingame 1994, 13). Empathy enables the speaker to identify the most persuasive emotional arguments for his audience, which Aristotle classifies as pathos in his Rhetoric.

Ronald C. White observed that Lincoln's later presidential speeches represent his "greater willingness to use emotion to touch the deepest sentiments of his audience" (2005, 307). Empathy is a particularly important component of Lincoln's second inaugural address. The sentence "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other" is an attempt by Lincoln to force Northerners and Southerners to understand the common tradition that still united them. By its very construction, the careful listener must put himself in the position of the other. For example, Lincoln did not say, "Those from the North and the South read the same Bible, and pray to the same God." His use of the word "both" forces the listener to look into the heart of his opponent. Lincoln removes himself completely from the second inaugural; he does not speak of "I" in the speech (White 2005, 287). The theme of the second inaugural is the cause of the Civil War and what must occur in order to reconstruct the nation--the president's role is completely absent. In this sense, Lincoln demonstrated empathy by merely saying the words that needed to be spoken. But Lincoln's challenge fails to his listeners; he is not explicit in his rhetoric. A true understanding of Lincoln's most lasting empathetic edict required reconciliatory action: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ..."

Bill Clinton: The Modern Excesses of Empathy

During a 1992 presidential debate in Richmond, candidate Bill Clinton answered a question that may have been the linchpin for his eventual victory a few months later. When the question was posed, President George H. W. Bush already appeared visibly uncomfortable with the informal town hall format of the debate. He briefly looked at his watch, perhaps wondering how many more minutes he had to stand next to Clinton and answer questions that undeniably favored his challenger. A woman approached the microphone and asked how the national debt had personally affected each of the candidate's lives. After President Bush initially answered that "interest rates" had affected him, and then finally admitted he "didn't get" the question, the questioner retorted, "But how has it affected you, and if you have no experience in it, how can you help us, if you don't know what we're feeling?" After Bush plodded through a retort, Clinton pounced on the opportunity. He left his position behind the podium, and threw the question back at the audience member: "Tell me how it affected you again. You know people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes?" After the woman said she had, Clinton launched into an answer filled with empathy, explaining how he had met people "like you all over America" and that he personally knew people "by name" who had lost their jobs or their health insurance (Commission on Presidential Debates 1992). It was a defining moment in the campaign. With his response, Clinton convinced voters that he understood their common hardships.

Clinton possessed an extraordinary ability to make citizens believe that he understood their problems. (6) Whether it was comforting mourners at a funeral or talking to a person suffering from an illness, Clinton knew how to convey his empathy. As president, Clinton's understanding of African Americans' plight led him to be described as the "first black president." Such terminology could only be extended to someone who African Americans believed understood their challenges completely.

Clinton's autobiography, My Life, is filled with examples of how empathy served as a motivating factor throughout his political career. His book includes a litany of stories describing Americans who experienced hardship or misfortune, and how Clinton responded to their problems with political solutions. From parents who took Family and Medical Leave to care for sick children to the countless people he met on his infamous jogs, Clinton's own account of his presidency focused heavily on the empathetic relationships he fostered with the nation's citizens. Early in his presidential tenure, Clinton enlarged the White House's casework operation because the personal nature of his 1992 campaign drastically increased the number of citizens who reached out to him for help (Clinton 2004, 486).

Like Lincoln, Clinton clearly recognized the political value of empathy. Adviser Dick Morris observed, "When motivated by the pain he saw in the world around him, Clinton was at his empathetic best, grasping the emotions of others and internalizing them, making them his own" (Morris and McGann 2004, 6). Morris credited Clinton's foreign policy success with Northern Ireland as a testimony to his ability to empathize with the viewpoints of all parties involved. His empathy led to the acceptance of a solution that all factions trusted (Morris and McGann 2004, 41). Clinton's empathy also enabled him to "read a room" with uncanny accuracy. He sensed when people liked him, and also knew who disliked him. His natural inclination was to gravitate toward those who doubted him so that he could win them over by the end of the interaction (Morris and McGann 2004, 24).

Perhaps Clinton's skills as "empathizer in chief" shone brightest during the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Before Oklahoma City, Clinton's presidency had been in turmoil, with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and House Republicans in a powerful position. But a national tragedy requires empathy, and Clinton fulfilled and exceeded the demands of the role. In a PBS documentary about the Clinton presidency, George Stephanopoulos remarked, "This sounds so cliched, but it's true--he immediately felt what happened in Oklahoma City and was able to articulate it." Robert Reich agreed: "He is extraordinarily able to feel the emotions of a situation, and express those emotions in a very articulate way. The time of the bombing was one of his most eloquent times. He really did express the feelings of the nation" (Hamilton 2007, 447). Before flying to Oklahoma City for the memorial service, President Clinton and the first lady met with children in the White House to discuss the tragedy. Clinton connected well with the audience, explaining, "Our family has been struggling to make sense of this tragedy, and I know that families all over America have as well" (Hamilton 2007, 443). On April 23, 1995, Clinton delivered the eulogy at the service to memorialize the bombing victims. Clinton captured the essence of empathy with these words:

But for so many of you they were also neighbors and friends. You saw them at church or PTA meetings, at the civic clubs, at the ball parks. You know them in ways that the rest of America could not. And to all the members of the families here present who have suffered loss, though we share your grief, your pain is unimaginable, and we know that. We cannot undo it. That is God's work. (Clinton 1995, 573-74)

The speech hit the right tone because Clinton did not claim to know the victims personally, but spoke to the survivors who did. He empathized with the living, and found the right words both to share and separate his sorrow with the pain of those who had lost family members and friends.

Clinton's impressive capacity to express empathy and the political benefits he reaped from this ability are noteworthy. Nonetheless, there is something about Clinton's empathy that is troubling. The contrast with Lincoln is instructive. Despite Clinton's empathetic prowess, Lincoln's empathy is somehow more admirable than Clinton's. It is not enough to say that Clinton's empathetic displays make us squirm or feel uncomfortable at times. If Lincoln's arrow hit the mark on empathy, Clinton shot past the target.

Perhaps the most common criticism of Clinton's empathy is that it was not genuine. Clinton's dishonesty in other aspects of his personal life might lead one to assume that his empathetic gestures--the tears, the concern, the biting of the lower lip and the cocking of his head--were nothing other than a mastery of spectacle. It is hard to disprove or confirm this accusation without knowing Clinton's true motivations for his empathetic behavior. Evidence suggests that Clinton displayed an ability to understand others as early as kindergarten (Renshon 1998, 186). Like Lincoln, Clinton seemed to exhibit a high capacity for empathy throughout his life. Such continuity of behavior implies that Clinton's empathy was not purely strategic or externally motivated. Rather, Clinton's empathy seems to be part of his personality or psyche.

Even if Clinton's empathetic behaviors were genuine, there are still considerable problems with his use of empathy. While Lincoln utilized empathy to give him valuable information about how his friends and enemies would act, Clinton relied on empathy as an end in itself. One of empathy's important roles in political leadership is its ability to inform an emotionally cognizant leader about the difficult decisions and choices that he or she must make each day. Lincoln clearly mastered empathy and used his self-awareness to help him govern. In contrast, empathy seemed to master Clinton at times.

In particular, empathy inhibited Clinton's ability to act decisively as president. His empathy became paralyzing (Renshon 1998, 107). Morris observed that Clinton's "acute understanding of his opponents' likely reaction led him to procrastinate, delay, and avoid decisions" (Morris and McGann 2004, 17). Morris compared Clinton to a "figure in mythology" who was "blind because he could see everything" (Morris and McGann 2004, 43). Knowing what his critics would say about him, Clinton found it difficult to make decisions in a timely manner. Because he could always put himself in the other person's position, deciding between competing kernels of advice was a Herculean task. His empathy also led him to exaggerate the seriousness of obstacles and enemies, which encouraged inaction rather than action (Morris and McGann 2004, 43). A notable example is the release of Whitewater documents to the Washington Post. Because Clinton imagined each move and countermove with trepidation, the White House held back the information, and the unrelenting investigation eventually resulted in the president's impeachment (Clinton 2004, 573). Stanley Renshon cautioned that strong feelings of empathy can paralyze leaders. Feeling the pain and plight of others can prevent action (1998, 107). In this light, the contrast with Lincoln is stark. Lincoln knew that his emotions could be debilitating, but he resisted such paralysis. He trained himself to use his empathy as a tool--for both good governance and political gain. It does not appear that Clinton possessed Lincoln's impressive level of empathetic self-mastery.

Finally, Clinton often used his empathy as a political crutch, relying on his "I feel your pain" posture to compensate for his own personal and political failures. He used his infamous capacity for empathy to turn attention away from his own behavior and instead concentrate on other people. Clinton relied on external stimuli and the energy of others to survive. By focusing on his empathetic abilities, Clinton could avoid turning inward. The epilogue to My Life is telling in this regard. Assessing his presidency, Clinton wrote,
 This is how I kept score: all the millions of people with new jobs,
 new homes, and college aid; the kids with health insurance and
 after-school programs; the people who left welfare for work; the
 families helped by the family leave law; the people living in safer
 neighborhoods--all these people have stories, and they're better
 ones now. (2004, 955)

It is apparent that Clinton evaluated his presidency in terms of how he influenced the lives of average American citizens. Empathy enabled Clinton to minimize his own bad choices, questionable character, and personal faults. Because he had such a connection with the other, Clinton could rationalize that introspection was unimportant and not the measure of his presidency. In reality, Clinton will always be a tragic figure because his capacity for empathy considerably outweighed his ability to regulate his own behavior and lead decisively.

George W. Bush: The End of the Empathetic Presidency

After newly elected president George W. Bush missed several opportunities to show his "softer" side, White House reporter John E Harris made a declaration: "The Empathetic Presidency is over" (Harris 2001). Top aides to the president confirmed that the reserved approach was an abrupt change from Clinton's presidency. The more taciturn reaction to crises and times of national mourning came from Bush's "personal values," in addition to the advice of his political strategists. Despite being elected under the mantra of "compassionate conservatism," Bush's advisors believed that Clinton's "sometimes ostentatious shows of sympathy" had detracted from the gravitas of the presidency (Harris 2001). Karen Hughes remarked that during the years she worked for Bush as governor and president, she often tussled with him about the importance of visibility during a natural disaster or catastrophe. According to Hughes, Bush's reluctance stemmed from his "humility" and his belief that "his presence will distract from the victims and make it appear he is capitalizing on their suffering for his political gain" (2004, 98). If true, Hughes's comments are revealing because they diminish accusations that Bush is a person completely devoid of empathy. Instead, Bush's conception of the presidency--being a strong, decisive leader in time of crisis without becoming overwhelmed by emotion or anxiety--greatly influenced his behavior (McClellan 2008, 283). It also bolsters the notion that empathy can be viewed as a resource and that presidents often choose to display empathy strategically.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush's disinclination to serve as "empathizer in chief" did not seem to inhibit his authority. Americans initially responded favorably to Bush's command and control decisiveness that emphasized toughness (recall his proclamation to firefighters at Ground Zero that "the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear from all of us soon") rather than empathy. In fact, his reelection in 2004 may have temporarily vindicated his rejection of the empathetic presidency.


However, the Bush administration's reaction to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath threw his bleak assessment of empathy's importance into considerable question. Before Katrina, Bush's overall job performance ratings had already started to slide into the mid-40s. (7) Two months after Katrina, his job performance had dropped to the high 30s. Furthermore, only 34% of respondents to an ABC/Washington Post poll agreed that "Bush understood the problems of people like you." Although Bush never received high polling marks on the "empathy" question, 34% was a historic low for him--a full 10 points below Clinton's lowest rating ever on the measure. (8) Figure 1 shows the steady decline in public approval of Bush's empathy throughout his presidency with November 2005 as the nadir. (9)

Scott McClellan, President Bush's press secretary at the time, concluded that the weak reaction to Katrina was a product of the administration's "mind-set." The Bush White House had already survived numerous disasters, including 9/11. As a result, McClellan observed that the attitude was blase ("What, another tragedy?") and complacent (2008, 279). Several harmful images of the president emerged in the days immediately following Katrina. Bush was photographed strumming a guitar backstage after a speech he gave commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of V-J Day on August 30. The press pictures from the flyover of New Orleans the next day were also politically damaging. Although McClellan contends that Bush was engaged and deeply affected by the devastation he saw, the photographs made him appear detached and uncaring. Looking at the ruin from the comfort and opulence of Air Force One certainly did not help (McClellan 2008, 282). Instead, it brought attention to the fact that Bush was not on the ground, meeting victims in person and surveying the destruction firsthand. The president's comments after visiting former majority leader Trent Lott's destroyed vacation home became the final nail in the coffin. Bush stated, "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house--he's lost his entire house--there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch" (Bush 2005a). The president was astonishingly out of touch with Katrina and its extensive aftermath.

In addition to Bush's less than effusive public display of empathy, his rhetoric immediately following the storm also failed to convey a sense of shared compassion. Bush's comments acknowledged the tragedy; he stated, "These are trying times for the people of these communities" (Bush 2005b). But his words failed to communicate that he understood the gravity of the situation. Other attempts tried to reassure the victims that help was on the way, yet were devoid of emotion. For example, on September 2, 2005, he remarked mechanically, "I know the people of this part of the world are suffering, and I want them to know that there's a flow of progress" (Bush 2005c). Finally, seven days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Bush started to find an empathetic tone when visiting Mississippi:

I understand. I understand the damage. I understand the devastation. I understand the destruction. I understand how long it's going to take. And we're with you. That's what I want you to know. God Bless. (Bush 2005d)

Bush's repetition of "understand" Is noteworthy, as well as his statement that "we're with you." Both rhetorical choices helped convey that the president grasped the pain and heartache of the storm's victims. Unfortunately, his empathetic recognition came too late after the immediate crisis.

In this instance, Bush's instinct for decisive leadership was hampered by his unwillingness to engage in empathetic behavior. Katrina illustrates the complicated relationship between strong, self-assured presidential leadership and the importance of empathy. To demonstrate that he was engaged and leading the nation through a time of crisis--when Americans were greatly disturbed by the images they saw on television--Bush needed to show empathetic understanding through his words and actions. Instead, he let his predilection for controlled, detached leadership dominate his decisions. His intense desire to solve the numerous logistical problems on the ground clouded his ability to see the bigger picture. A natural disaster of Katrina's magnitude demanded an artful combination of both empathetic and decisive leadership.

There is evidence, however, that Bush learned from Katrina. Early in 2008, after Bush received briefings about the extent of flooding in Iowa, he immediately flew to Cedar Rapids to see the damage himself. He brought with him an impressive cadre of federal officials, including the budget director, secretary of homeland security, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, secretary of agriculture, and commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Immediately upon exiting Air Force One, President Bush stated,

Our job is to come down here ... just to listen to what you got on your mind ... I know a lot of farmers and cattlemen are hurting right now, along with the city people.... as we worry about Cedar Rapids, we also got to worry about the little towns. A lot of folks are wondering whether or not the government hears about them, too, and I can assure you that I know the Governor cares deeply about it, and so do we. (Bush 2008)

President Bush wasted no time in communicating that he understood the extent of the damage caused by the flood, and that the government empathized with those who had lost their homes and businesses. Although a far cry from the days of "I feel your pain," there is no doubt that the empathetic presidency was at least partially resurrected in Cedar Rapids.

Obama and Empathy: Searching for Lincoln

Well before Justice Souter announced his retirement in 2009, presidential candidate Barack Obama placed empathy at the center of his proposed governing philosophy and self-described moral code. As a senator, Obama highlighted the importance of empathy routinely. At a July 12, 2006, meeting with college student leaders, he introduced the concept of an "empathy deficit" in American society:

There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit--the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different than us--the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room ... We live in culture that discourages empathy. A culture that often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses. (Obama 2006b)

Obama later discussed the same concept, with a slightly different formulation, in a January 20, 2008, speech in Atlanta:

I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. 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. We have an empathy deficit when we're sending our children down corridors of shame ... We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months ... We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities ... And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion. (Obama 2008b)

The second formulation provides a wider lens in which to understand Obama's emphasis on empathy. For Obama, empathy is a way to achieve unity, the goal he emphasized when he stepped onto the national stage in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention: "It's that fundamental belief--I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper--that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. 'E pluribus unum.' Out of many, one" (Obama 2004). Because empathy allows citizens to "recognize ourselves in one another," it encourages the unity Obama advocated in 2004. For Obama, empathy is the missing ingredient in American society that will enable citizens to become "tied together in a single garment of destiny."

In addition to the communal problems arising from a lack of shared national empathy, Obama also classifies empathy as a problem of individual character. At a speech in Chicago on Father's Day in 2008, he argued that fathers must "pass along the value of empathy" to their children. He distinguished empathy from sympathy by defining the former explicitly as "the ability to stand in somebody else's shoes; to look at the world through their eyes." If fathers instill a "sense of excellence and empathy" in their children, then "government should meet them halfway" and exercise responsibility, as well (Obama 2008a). In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes empathy as the "heart of my moral code" (2006a, 66). As a personal virtue, empathy is more demanding than sympathy and charity because it requires a person to "see through" someone else's eyes.

Because of the repetitive nature of the "empathy deficit" trope in his speeches and statements, it is clear that empathy is a core concept of Obama's political leadership. Empathy and its requirements are the building blocks of his governing principles. For example, in his most recent book, he stated directly that the question "How would that make you feel?" is a "guidepost" for his politics (Obama 2006a, 67).

There is some indication that Obama may view empathy in similar terms as Lincoln. For example, he revealed that empathy obligates him "to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I disagree with him" (Obama 2006a, 68). Such a statement is reminiscent of Lincoln's willingness to view slavery through the eyes of his political opponents. However, Obama is much more willing than Lincoln or any of his presidential predecessors to articulate explicitly the importance of empathy in politics and society.

Obama has been no more outspoken about empathy than in his public commentary concerning the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, floor remarks concerning the confirmation of John Roberts, Senator Obama stated that while adherence to legal precedent and statutory construction dispose of 95 percent of the cases that come before a court, what matters on the Supreme Court is the "five percent of cases that are truly difficult." In those instances, Obama argued that decisions are determined by "one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy" (Obama 2005). Empathy is not opposed to legal justice, but instead serves as an important complement when the "rule of law" does not provide a clear answer in difficult cases (McClain 599, 2009).

During the 2008 campaign, Obama stated that he would select federal judges "who have enough empathy, enough feeling, for what ordinary people are going through" (Savage 2008). At a speech at Planned Parenthood, he described his ideal judicial nominee:

And we need somebody who's got the heart--the empathy--to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old--and that's the criteria by which I'll be selecting my judges. (Obama 2007)

Soon after the announcement of Justice Souter's retirement, President Obama commented on the selection criteria he would use to nominate a replacement:

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. (Obama 2009a)

By equating empathy with the ability to identify with "people's hopes and struggles," Obama capitalized on empathy's political utility to a degree perhaps only recently matched by Bill Clinton. Supreme Court justices are largely mysterious political elites. They are intellectualized jurists with unknown dispositions. By discussing the individual qualities he admires in a Supreme Court justice, President Obama attempted to draw a connection between the decisions the high court makes and the "daily realities of people's lives." Very few people read law journal articles or understand a prospective justice's legal philosophy, but empathy is a character trait understood by all citizens in a democracy.

President Obama seized on Justice Souter's retirement as a political opportunity to humanize the Court and to highlight empathy as one of the most revered components of his governing philosophy. In his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Obama emphasized the importance of her experience, which "can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live" (Obama 2009b). Sotomayor's presence on the Court is tangible evidence of empathy's lasting impact on presidential decision making.

The Political Importance of Empathy in the Presidency

Empathy is an important governing and political resource for presidents. There are at least three ways in which empathy can affect executive governance. First, empathy enables presidents to "see the whole" in a large republic. Presidents cannot maintain firsthand knowledge of the hardships endured by citizens. The more accurately a president can perceive the emotions of another, the better he can make informed decisions. In this sense, empathy can serve as a source of information for political leaders. This information can influence presidential decisions, including the selections made for executive branch positions and seats on the federal bench. Second, a developed sense of empathy can improve communication between the president and the nation. Heightened empathetic awareness can enable presidents to formulate effective rhetorical arguments. Perhaps no better example is Lincoln's second inaugural address, in which Lincoln's rhetorical formulations encouraged listeners, particularly Northerners, to embrace empathy. Finally, empathy can enhance leadership during national tragedies or times of crisis. The American president serves as the country's political leader and head of state; the requirements of the latter should not be forgotten. The "empathizer in chief" expectations are real, and failure to understand the sadness and misery of the citizenry can lead to serious miscalculations, as George W. Bush can attest.

There is also a political value to presidential empathy. As Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton demonstrated, the ability to understand the situation of others, particularly political adversaries, can prove quite beneficial. Lincoln is the true hero of this examination because he displayed an almost uncanny ability to master empathy. Instead of allowing his emotions to control him, Lincoln utilized empathy to help him predict the behavior of his opponents. His willingness to see the world from another's viewpoint also enabled him to figure out ways in which he could convert enemies into allies. Lincoln's capacity for empathy was probably innate, yet the political benefits he culled from it are worthy of attention and analysis.

Despite the numerous benefits of empathetic leadership, a real tension between empathy and the perception of decisive leadership persists. The balance between the two is delicate. Too much reliance on empathy can lead to allegations of timidity or paralysis, and too little attention to empathy can trigger accusations of callous hardheartedness. As President Obama has discovered, combining empathetic and decisive presidential leadership is no small task, and neither is imitating the impressive example left to posterity by his role model and fellow Illinois countryman.


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Congressional Research Service

(1.) For example, Ruth Marcus (2009), a Washington Post columnist, described President Obama as "touchy-feely." On a Sunday morning talk show, Senator Orrin Hatch Law contended that empathy is "usually a code word for an activist judge." In a Los Angeles Times commentary, law professor Ilya Somin (2009) stated that empathy is a "poor tool" for judicial decision making.

(2.) For example, see Eisenberg, Lennon, and Roth (1983). There is an extensive literature in psychology concerning the factors that inhibit or foster the development of empathy, particularly in children.

(3.) An exception is Hayes (2005), who observes that American voters view Republicans as strong, moral leaders, while Democratic candidates hold an advantage on compassion and empathy. Also, see McClain (2009) for legal commentary on Lani Guinier's recent article in the Harvard Law Review that discusses the importance of empathy in jurisprudence.

(4.) There is considerable debate about whether empathy is necessary for moral development. Research has shown that psychopaths lack empathy, perhaps resulting in a retarded moral sense. On the other hand, research has also shown that autistics, who typically display a diminished capacity for empathy, can behave morally. These studies suggest that empathy may play a contingent, although powerful, role in moral development.

(5.) The full quote of the 1842 speech on temperance in Springfield is as follows: "If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one."

(6.) Clinton famously stated "I feel your pain" for the first time at a fundraiser, not during a campaign rally, as most believe. The statement occurred on March 28, 1992, in a heated exchange between Clinton and AIDS activist Bob Rafsky. According to a transcript printed in the New York Times, Rafsky told Clinton, "We're not dying of AIDS as much as we are dying of eleven years of government neglect." Clinton responded, "I feel your pain. I feel your pain" to Rafsky.

(7.) See the line graph at [accessed August 25, 2009] for an average of 13 polls using a 14-day average from 2004 through 2007.

(8.) See 1278080 [accessed August 25, 2009].

(9.) The data are available at [accessed August 25, 2009]. The specific ABC News/Washington Post poll question was, "Please tell me whether the following statement applies to Bush or not ... He understands the problems of people like you." The data displayed are those responding "yes" to the question. Figure 1 was compiled by the author from the data provided. The question was asked in the same manner throughout the dates provided.

Colleen J. Shogan is Assistant Director of the Congressional Research Service, Government and Finance Division, in the Library of Congress.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: All views and opinions expressed herein are personal and not institutional I would like to thank Matthew Glassman, Steve Stathis, and Lorraine Tong for their comments and assistance.
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Author:Shogan, Colleen J.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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