President Barack Obama talks a lot about empathy.
He regularly refers to it when describing qualities he looks for in federal court nominees. He appeals to the public’s sense of it when defending trillion-dollar spending plans and justifying his health care reform bill. It is sure to be part of his argument for immigration reform. It informs his approach to fighting terrorism and addressing human rights abroad.
Empathy – the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others – animates much of Obama’s talk about his agenda. So it’s taken for granted that his policies display it.
But a deeper look reveals that Obama’s sense of empathy is highly politicized—sensitive to and compassionate to favored political constituencies, unfeeling and intolerant to many others.
Empathy is essential for any president. Bill Clinton told out-of-work Americans that he felt their pain. George W. Bush got elected, in part, by stressing a compassionate conservatism that attempted to marry personal responsibility with government spending for social programs.
But Obama has made empathy his central governing virtue. In 2007, while describing to Planned Parenthood supporters the qualities he’d look for in a Supreme Court justice, Obama said, “We need somebody who’s got the…empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old.”
In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama writes, “A sense of empathy is at the heart of my moral code.”
Given the president’s devotion to empathy, it is surprising how he has misread the country in his policy initiatives -- perceiving a desire for federal activism that doesn’t exist.
The tea party movement, last summer’s heated health care town halls and Democrats’ recent electoral defeats and sagging poll numbers are all consequences of Obama’s inability to see through the eyes of millions of Americans.
During the health care debate, Obama repeatedly chided Republicans for their alleged lack of empathy for the millions of uninsured Americans and those with pre-existing conditions.
But he never mentions those who could suffer under Obamacare, including young people forced to pay higher premiums, employers facing steep taxes for hiring low income workers and the unemployed who find such employers reluctant to create new jobs.
Where was the president’s empathy for anti-abortion rights medical professionals, compelled to participate in abortions because Obamacare has no conscience clause?
Obama often criticizes policies that place the interests of the powerful ahead of the powerless. But through his administration’s support of abortion rights, Obama shows his lack of empathy for society’s most powerless.
The president has justified his stimulus bills by asking Americans to feel empathy for the millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans struggling to make ends meet.
But his spending disregards our children and grand-children. They will be saddled with paying for today’s unprecedented borrowing.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected cumulative national debt to increase in the next decade by $9.8 trillion, a sum that could mean lower standards of living for future Americans.
Empathy will be at the heart of Obama’s push for an immigration reform bill, that could well include amnesty for illegal immigrants. But amnesty is uncompassionate to American workers unable to find jobs because illegal immigrants work for less pay. It also penalizes immigrants who did things the right way, waiting years to have a shot at citizenship.
Empathy is essential to effective diplomacy. Obama’s foreign policy, rooted in his desire to understand and engage America’s adversaries, is clearly informed by it. But his subordination of the human rights agenda has emboldened recalcitrant regimes the world over.
It is lack of empathy that explains why Obama and his lieutenants are at pains to link terrorism with almost anything—poverty, Gitmo, even climate change—except its primary cause, radical Islam.
Republicans rarely criticize Obama for lack of empathy -- in part because liberals have traditionally been seen as standing up for the weak and vulnerable. Conservatives can be just as empathetic. But they believe that, in most cases, it’s not government’s role to be the primary dispenser of empathy.
Obama personifies empathy in popular myth. He came from humble roots in a single-parent home, has lived on two continents and among at least two racial and ethnic groups. A July 2009 Gallup poll found that 66 percent of Americans felt Obama “understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives.”
To be authentically empathetic, however, presidents must consider how policies affect all Americans.
That may be difficult for a president who has spent most of his adult life, on campus and in legislatures, surrounded by those whose views align with his own. The president’s public appearances often resemble campaign rallies, filled with supporters and covered by a mostly fawning media.
If America is suffering from what the president calls an “empathy deficit,” Obama is not helping to narrow it.
His application of empathy is highly selective, almost always leading to liberal public policy prescriptions for government intervention. Liberalism, however, is often the least empathetic answer for millions of Americans.
What Obama seems unable to grasp is that few Americans are willing to put their trust in the tender mercies of government bureaucrats.
May be he should try to empathize with their concerns.
Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.