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

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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.

Barack Obama on the Early Show. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama at the CBS News town hall meeting

Presidents must show empathy during difficult economic times. It's in the office handbook. There's only so much any one president can do though about the immediate condition of the economy, and he must be careful not to exaggerate his impact. So he emphasizes that he understands the plight of regular Americans. The problem with empathy, however, is not just that there's never enough of it to go around. It's that by offering it, presidents raise unrealistic expectations of a different sort.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The empathy tactic is most associated with Bill Clinton, who famously said, "I feel your pain" during the 1992 campaign, but the phrase actually dates to Jimmy Carter, who promised to be "a president who's not isolated from the people, but who feels your pain," in the 1976 campaign. Even John Kennedy shot a superbly stiff commercial where he plunked himself on the sofa like an insurance salesman to chat with a regular American family. The master was FDR, whose polio helped him convey a heartfelt connection with those struggling through the Depression.

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So on Wednesday, when President Obama participated in a CBS News town hall meeting devoted to the economy, he wore his empathy like the flag pin on his collar. "A lot of folks are still anxious about the fact that even if they have a job, even if they're working really hard, that their wages haven't gone up, their incomes haven't gone up, but the costs of everything from gas to groceries to health care to a college education, those have all gone up. … People just feel like the American dream, the core notion that if you work hard and you act responsibly that you can pass on a better life to your kids and your grandkids—a lot of folks aren't feeling that anymore."

Obama's approval ratings on the economy are high in one poll, but at their lowest level ever in three national polls. He's passed a stimulus, bailed out car companies, and promoted a host of other economic measures; but at this point GOP opposition, the deficit, and politics mean his options on the economy are limited. So he's bringing on the empathy. But showing empathy comes with its own risks (and not just the risk that it will not seem genuine, as George H.W. Bush discovered with his "Message: I care" attempt in 1992). The risk of empathy is that it pushes a president into roles he's not really suited to play: job counselor, psychotherapist, loan officer.

At Wednesday's discussion, Karen Gallo, a former employee at the National Zoo, asked the president the second question. Seven months pregnant, she is out of work and terrified. "I definitely need a job," she said. "I just wonder what would you do, if you were me?"

Obama did what presidents are supposed to do: He congratulated her on the impending birth. He bucked her up a little. He asked her about her situation. There wasn't much he could do in terms of job counseling, so he made a larger point about how government workers like Karen are people, too. "When we have discussions about how to cut our debt and our deficit in an intelligent way, we have to make sure that we understand this is not just a matter of numbers, these are people."

She liked his answer. Afterward, I quizzed the audience  along with Jill Schlesinger of CBS Moneywatch.com. "He is the leader of the free world," she said, "so I was happy to hear that he wanted to help me or at least wanted to hear about my situation."

Faced with Karen and her plight—and the human desire to not crush someone in a vulnerable moment—the president told her what she wanted to hear. When he was asked if an improvement in the economy would bring her job back, the president said, "I hope so." Given the spending reduction derby in Washington, which is likely to cut more government jobs, and the size of the deficit, the president's answer was wishful thinking. The audience knew it. I asked them afterward to raise their hands if anyone shared the president's optimism that the job would come back. One hand went up and then down.

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.

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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