The Politics of Empathy – How Obama Can Pass the American Jobs Act


The unsettling sounds of NPR hummed through the car on my drive to school this morning. “…poverty in the United States…at a new high…sixteen percent of Americans are impoverished…”

Almost two months have passed since President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act to Congress. Administration official after administration official has stood in front of rolling cameras and preached the facts, the numbers, the empirical proof that the legislation is a grave necessity.

But it occurs to me that Barack Obama has very little regard for pathos.

I have no doubt that Obama feels sympathy for those forty-nine million impoverished, or to those tens of millions of others who are unemployed, or who are working low-wage jobs that ill-suit them. I wonder, however, if he has any idea how to relay that sympathy to an immovable Congress.

Emotion-driven decision making is the force behind “pro-life” legislation. It’s what compels millions of Jews to support AIPAC and send funds to the State of Israel. The people who pushed healthcare reform through the House and the Senate are those who have relatives who can’t afford to pay for treatment of illnesses they suffer from. In the political arena, a cliché rings true: the people who feel are the people who make the impact – legislatively and tangibly.

Nonetheless, President Obama maintains another mindset altogether: he seems to come to his political decisions almost entirely by calculation, and very rarely seeks to compel Congress to legislate on empathy. He operates on the numerical, the practical, and the demonstrable.

Time has illustrated the slim margin of risk that the president is willing to take. In recent months, he has recoiled under criticism and the audacity that once defined him has slipped out of his reach.

But I can’t seem to rid this question from my mind: If Barack Obama were to walk door to door through Rayburn, through Dirksen, under the Rotunda, and into the Speaker’s office, the whole time accompanied by two unemployed Americans – or two people who fall into that sixteen percent – could the American Jobs Act pass?

Imagine the snapshots: members of Congress shutting their doors to the President of the United States; senators refusing to meet with their jobless constituents; lawmakers of all breeds hiding in their private offices, evading the call to put their country back to work. It would, at the very least, cause a stir, and at most, result in a starkly different poverty report than this morning’s.

I ran the idea past a teacher of mine last week, who promptly rebuffed it. “Imagine the commentators,” he said, “All the headlines would say ‘Obama uses theatrics; attempts to play to populace fall flat.’” He thought it would appear as a gimmick.

Indeed, Obama and his administration may be hesitant to use sentimentalist political tactics for fear that they will be perceived as a stunt. But this isn’t the first time Obama has ignored the potential for political gain by means of populist mechanisms. In spite of his tremendous command of political and economic principles, Obama’s ineptitude to effective persuasion – understanding what changes minds, what makes people tick – eclipses much of his pragmatism.

We witnessed the same indifference toward emotion-driven public opinion in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig’s explosion during the Spring of 2010. Obama – who was spending hours upon hours organizing strategies for emergency response and toxic cleanup behind closed doors – acted ostensibly apathetic.

Almost a month and a half went by before he set foot into a Gulf city that had been crippled by the spill. James Carville’s emphatic plea for Obama to “get down here and take control” reverberated throughout the mainstream media.

Senator Obama – candidate Obama – was a masterful populist. But President Obama has very little grasp of what it means to appeal to that which isn’t calculable.

The next presidential election will be held a year from today. At this rate, he’ll understand the importance of the politics of empathy on that fateful day.