Obama town hall meeting: The dangers when the president tries to show empathy.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 12 2011 12:01 PM

The Empathy Trap

What happens when Obama, like all presidents, tries to show Americans that he feels their pain.

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Next came Nancy Logan. She had faithfully paid her mortgage after her loan was modified, but now her bank wasn't extending the terms. Her official question was what the president was going to do to keep families like hers from losing their homes. The president quizzed her on her circumstances, showing concern the way he was supposed to, but that led to an inevitable conclusion. "Maybe you can make a call," she said half-jokingly. It was an almost perfect illustration of the empathy trap.

The empathy trap also works in a more abstract way. Peter Baca asked the president what he could do to lower gas prices. The president explained the conditions that had caused higher prices (an improving economy that had pushed up demand and unrest in the Middle East) and outlined his long-term plans.

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I asked Baca whether he felt the president had answered his question. "No, unfortunately he didn't," he said. "I go to the gas station once a week. When he took office the average price of gasoline was $1.87, now the average price is close to $5. … It's outrageous. … I would have liked to have heard him talk a little more about offshore drilling and what we can do here in the United States."

The sentiment that seemed to get the most emotional response afterward was the president's contention that American businesses are not doing enough to hire people. "When we're in the middle of a recession, our whole job was to make sure the—the economy was still growing and we stabilized the financial system. And we did that. And American taxpayers contributed to that process of stabilizing the economy. Companies have benefited from that, and they're making a lot of money. And now's the time for them to start betting on American workers and American products." 

The best news for the president came from Richard Ross. When I asked the audience if anyone had been persuaded by what Obama had said in the previous hour, Ross spoke up. "He does way better without a Teleprompter," said Ross, who described himself a conservative independent voter from Nashville. "I hear all the time he needs a Teleprompter. I like his vision. I feel like he's in touch with a lot of things."

The White House would like to create more voters like Ross. Obama needs voters to think he's on the case. The challenge is vast, though. Whether at the gas pump, in the grocery aisles, or on their mortgage statements, people are constantly seeing scary numbers. To keep up with all that anxiety, the president-as-therapist would have to hold office hours every day.

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