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Is Obama Empathetic to a Fault?

Normally desirable, empathy in excess might explain the president's bad deals.

Barack Obama frequently refers to empathy as a central part of his value system. In The Audacity of Hope, he says empathy is "at the heart of my moral code," adding that "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." 

Observing Obama in action, one can see that he walks the talk; he is a careful listener and he seems to make every effort to respect and understand other parties, especially those with whom he disagrees. When he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990 (the first African-American ever to win the post) fellow students suggested that it was Obama's ability to connect with others, even his ideological opponents, that made the difference. Obama's political and judicial philosophies, then and now, could be described more or less as mainstream liberal to moderate, but his colleagues at Harvard Law Review noted that he seemed to relate well even with members of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal club known for the so-called "originalist" jurisprudence of Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.

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"Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother," Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope. In both Audacity and his first memoir, the more personal and candid Dreams from My Father, Obama describes his mother as a religious skeptic and humanist, and in the latter book he writes, "I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her."

Empathy has remained an important aspect of Obama's character, to the point that it has created controversy on the campaign trail and in his presidency. In 2007, much to the outrage of anti-empathy conservatives, Obama said his judicial nominees would be selected in part based on their ability to empathize. "We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom,'' Obama said. "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'm going to be selecting my judges."

This admirable value of empathy, this desire to understand others and see things their way, would not normally be the focus of criticism, but one might reasonably wonder whether, with Obama and empathy, we might be seeing the phenomenon of "too much of a good thing." It is arguable, perhaps compellingly so, that Obama's propensity for empathy has been the psychological root of his recurring tendency to cave in to GOP negotiators.

As a lawyer who has resolved cases for over twenty years, I can appreciate that the art of effective negotiating is one in which some level of empathy can be useful. Depending on the circumstances, especially the relative bargaining power of the parties, an ability to "stand in the shoes" of an opposing party and to "see through their eyes" can be the difference between a successful deal and an unproductive bickering session. No matter how certain we seem of a particular position, sometimes the ability to let down one's guard, to seriously consider what an opponent is saying and affirmatively make an effort to understand where they are coming from, can allow us to see a situation anew.

With Obama, however, time and again we find that he seems almost too eager to see issues from the standpoint of his adversaries, resulting in deals that generously sacrifice important positions and principles of his core constituents - real working Americans who elected him to defend their interests - in favor of corporate and wealthy interests. In this week's debt-ceiling deal, for example, Republicans boasted that they got "98 percent" of what they wanted - including what will almost certainly be drastic cuts in social programs relied upon by working families and the elderly, with no certainty that taxes will be increased on even the wealthiest of American individuals or corporations.

This disastrous outcome can be seen as a misuse of empathy. In a situation where a more confrontational Obama could have had a Ross Perot moment, where he could have shown the public through charts and diagrams how insanely unfair the GOP was being, how the wealthiest interests are not paying their fair share, etc., Obama instead apparently chose a strategy of trying to empathize with the guys on the other side of the table. In doing so, in applying the virtue of empathy beyond its appropriate sphere, he perhaps reveals a flaw, not a strength.

If this were a one-time occurrence it might be less remarkable, but in fact it has become a recurring theme in his presidency. Consider, for example, the debate over health care, and how quickly Obama abandoned not only the possibility of a universal single-payer system, but even a public option. Almost anyone following the negotiations was aware that a single-payer system was never going to happen, but surely a public option was seen by many as a realistic possibility, particularly since Obama's party controlled both chambers of Congress at the time. To the surprise and dismay of those who wished for real progressive reform, however, even the public option was off the table as a bargaining chip very early in the negotiations. The result was a Romney-style plan that requires Americans to purchase insurance products, a plan that will surely benefit insurance and other corporate interests while burdening average working people. Could this terrible negotiation outcome be Obama's "empathy in action" once again?

Of course, political realities always require compromise, but for many there seems to be a very real disconnect between the aura of strength exuded by Obama in certain situations, particularly as a candidate, as a writer, and as a public speaker, and the aura of timidity that seems to often flow from his dealings with Republicans. In one sense his non-combative, calm, intelligent, and sober personality is quite appealing, but considering his results one might suspect that the chink in his armor, the psychological flaw that might hold him back from bringing about the wondrous change that he once promised, is his overstocked supply of empathy.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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