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.

The See-Through Lifestyle – Why Al Franken Shouldn’t Sound So Shocked

Your iPad is watching you.

Researchers announced this week that a handful of Apple’s most popular products – namely the iPhone and iPad – are built with internal tracking devices. These devices record the exact longitude and latitude coordinates of where their users have been, when they were there, and how long they stayed. The information is stored in an unencrypted format, making it easily accessible to hackers – as well as to people who are just interested in knowing know more about you, but are unlikely to give you a call (not quite your kind of folks).

A furious and insistent Sen. Al Franken took issue with Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, in a forcefully-worded letter this week. In an attempt to alert the public of Apple’s error, Franken wrote in the widely publicized letter, “Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken-over the past months or even a year.” In Franken’s eyes, the tech-giant’s behavior raises “serious privacy concerns.”

Franken isn’t alone in his discomfort. Several other lawmakers – led primarily by Rep. Ed Markey – are also at odds with Apple’s curious decision to conceal this information, just as the initial report was greeted with general anxiety and irritation from the products’ users.

But I’m bewildered by the world’s bewilderment. When are we going to stop acting so surprised by these kinds of ‘discoveries?’ This most recent revelation about Apple is nothing new. This incident is merely an alarming symbol of an ever intensifying, increasingly accepted culture of comprehensive information sharing.

When my grandpa was my age, his home phone number was one turn of the rotary dial: “4.” If he wanted to speak with his friend Danny who lived on the other side of town, he would pick up the receiver and chat with the operator on the other line, who would patch him through to “16.” If my grandpa wanted to find out where Danny had been at three o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, he could ask Danny the next day in school.

We aren’t living in my grandpa’s generation. Privacy’s definition has become a bit more vague and much significantly more generous; its value has been compromised and sold short. Society, companies, and governments alike have bought into these trends.

In the months following September 11th, George Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, essentially granting law enforcement agencies a mandate to spy on American citizens without warrant. Almost a decade later, Barack Obama – who was fundamentally opposed to many elements of the Act during the 2008 presidential campaign – signed another bill that extended a few provisions from the original Act. Among those provisions were an authorization of court-ordered wiretapping and confiscation of property and records. Though the Act expired in February, the ideas upon which is stands remain audible and influential in the halls of congress and in conservative political movements throughout the country.

We’ve seen these trends in the public sector, but they’re happening even more frequently at a MacBook near you. I’m surprised that we act so astounded by Apple’s unsavory behavior because every day – every minute – we voluntarily give up our freedom of privacy.

When I log onto Facebook, I regularly see “Sarah L. is at The Grove with Adam J. and Rebecca M.” When browse someone’s “Basic Information,” it’s as though someone is approaching me and saying “here is my phone number, this is where I go to school, this is where I went to school, here is the name of my employer, and, hey, in case you’re wondering, here are my three favorite Jane Austen novels.”

Al Franken is right to take issue with corporate negligence. But the values of transparency and candor permeate our modern society. Just as we complain about Apple’s duplicity, so too do we buy into the rapidly emerging see-through lifestyle. We lose our credibility when – with one click of the mouse – we express disgust with Steve Jobs’ outing of our information , then – with another click – upload two-hundred pictures from last night’s birthday bash to Flickr.

In this era, privacy is not a given: it is an attainable goal. If we want it, we have to work for it. And if we’re not willing to put in that effort, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our iPads are watching us.

And Then He Rolled His Eyes – Dignifying the Next Generation

On a summer day in 1963, a young Bill Clinton shook hands with John Kennedy. Clinton – just seventeen years old – was a participant in Boys Nation and was given the opportunity to spend a day at the White House. That moment was a pivotal one for Clinton. It kindled his internal activist spirit and incited within him the desire to achieve. “It had a very profound impact on me,” Clinton said years later. “I think that it’s something that I carried with me always.”

Last week, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. He was visiting to deliver a brief autobiography and court a group of soon-to-be constituents. As kids were still shuffling into the gym, where the congressman was to give his talk, I spotted him and decided to approach him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said politely, putting out my hand to shake his. I began to tell him about a project that I’d helped to start; my “Global Response” team at school had designed and produced pins to sell as a fundraiser for disaster relief in Japan. I worried that what I was doing might seem somewhat trivial; still, I felt that it was important for me to reach out to the congressman and offer him a glimpse into our student activism. But when I began to tell him about our venture, his eyes glazed over in boredom.

As I handed him one of the pins – emblazoned with the slogan “Bring the light back to Japan” – the congressman rolled his eyes. He backed up and threw his hands in the air as though he was conceding something to me. “Uch,” he said, shaking his head, “I get so many of these kinds of things.”

What if the congressman had said “Fantastic!” or “May I have a few more pins for my colleagues?” What if he had told me that he’d done something similar in high school? What if he had even challenged me – asked me to prove to him why Japan needs our money more than Haiti or Chile?

The congressman’s remark was particularly troubling because of the setting he was in: a high school. In this era, rife with the distractions of “pings” from BlackBerrys and “pokes” from our Facebook profiles, it’s difficult enough to inspire young people to engage in the world’s pressing issues. What we need isn’t contempt and disinterest. It’s encouragement – or even just recognition.

Teenagers are – as our parents were, and as the next generation will be – inherently self-involved. That’s not an accusation; it’s an established physiological fact. Combine that egocentrism with pervasive technology – SparkNotes, Google, smartphones – and you’re witnessing a perfect storm of distraction and apathy. We’re not texting at the dinner table out of disdain for our families; we’re doing so because to us, in that moment, the most important thing in the world is whatever it is that we feel the need to text about.

To combat that adolescent indifference, my English teacher says the same thing in one form or another almost every time we meet for class: If you’re not bothered, then you’re not paying enough attention. And he’s right. In this era, to be disheartened is to be enlightened, and to be angry is to be empowered. But when a United States congressman belittles the hopeful and inspired efforts of a group of motivated high school students, he promotes just the opposite. Instead of the “Thank you for the pin!” that would fan the flames of intellectual curiosity, he chooses the “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things” – a slight that extinguishes them.

The value of person-to-person validation is unquantifiable. No matter how high we rise or how low we sink, no matter what job we have or what job we wish we had, it must always be our priority to validate, engage, and elevate the company with whom we surround ourselves.

To the congressman: If you wish to extol the values of education from the height and might of the podium, please practice what you preach. Dignify each individual, young or old, seemingly worthy or seemingly not. Instead of “Uch,” how about giving a teenager what Bill Clinton got: something to carry through life. And to the rest of you: Want to buy a pin?

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.


I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.


Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

A Puzzled Republic – What this Tax Deal is Really About

Puzzles are arduous to assemble. It’s challenging to pinpoint each individual component to construct the perfect fusion. Each piece gives rise to its own struggle, its own weight. Setbacks ensue, distractions pop up. Different people exhibit different levels of devotion to the puzzle. Building puzzles takes forever. But destroying them only takes a moment.

The puzzle of our fundamental framework — the multifaceted ideological (and more than pragmatic) enigma of the structure of our representative republic — is ever-rapidly sliding off of the table. Our government’s foundational principle is in peril. Forget about “taxation without representation.” What’s happening right now is under-taxation as a result of over-representation.

Let’s break this down so it is clear how I’ve arrived at my seemingly austere conclusion. Assume, for the time being, that the two central issues on Washington’s agenda are 1) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the upper class and 2) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. In very simplistic terms, the “upper class” is comprised of the top two percent of income-earners in this country; that is, the people in the ninety-ninth and hundredth percentile of income earned. The “middle class,” in a matter of words, is almost everyone else.

In the consummate representative government — isn’t that America? — the populations that carry the most weight (the groups that make up larger slices of the American pie) yield more representation in Congress. That, of course, is not to say that minorities and underdogs should go unaccounted for on the national stage. But when ninety eight percent of the country’s wage earners can be classified under one category, the remaining two percent’s voice in Congress should not transcend the overwhelming majority’s.

The culmination of Washington’s latest deliberations seems to entail a “compromise” to extend a tax credit for the two percent of the country who can afford to forgo precisely that credit. That two percent is entitled to the same representation that the rest of the country is; it is not, however, entitled to disproportionate influence on the Hill.

The puzzle is sliding off of the table. The pieces are falling out of place. The slope is a slippery one. And in the wake of the impending critical Congressional term, the question that Americans need to start asking vehemently is: whom do our representatives really represent? We need to ask because puzzles take centuries to build, but they only take one pivotal moment to destroy. Without that question, that moment is now.

Smudged Legacy

A legacy is like a chalkboard; you write and write, you smudge and smudge, you dot the i’s and cross the t’s until you’re out of room. You’re left with a couple of options. Either you can leave the message–the lesson–up on the board and grant interpretation to the prerogative of the viewer Or you can erase it and start over.

And there goes your legacy.

Nancy Pelosi is choosing the latter. I wouldn’t agree that she’s been “the most effective Speaker in a generation” as many are claiming. I would assert, however, that she’s been one of the most principled. In a gridlocked Congresses, she’s often avoided compromise and negotiation. She’s taken on the challenges that are important to Democrats, fought for the fundamental missions of liberals, and has answered the toughest questions with a progressive answer.

Perhaps her deeply rooted self-confidence was a factor in the demise of her Democratic majority. Retrospectively, maybe she should have been less “out there” and pushed a less partisan agenda. But she wasn’t and she didn’t, and in her position as Speaker, she didn’t need to be less partisan. She had nothing to lose.

Well, she lost it.

Instead of walking away from the chalkboard and leaving her legacy to the analytical eye of history, she’s picked up the eraser. And assuming that she succeeds in becoming the next Minority Leader, she’ll erase that pristine legacy of principle. She’ll have everything to lose. She’ll have to transform herself from the bleeding-heart liberal she has always been into a centrist-leaning blue dog. That’s not who she is–that’s not what the chalkboard should say.

To maintain her legacy and honorably end a career of righteous conviction, Nancy Pelosi should drop the eraser and choose not to run for Minority Leader. After a career of steadfast loyalty to the left-wing, the next two years would become a smudge on her legacy.

Election Guide

If you think that more minorities belong in jail, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’ve seen your share of nature and have come to terms with letting the rest of it go, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that no one else should benefit from your success, that you and your money are better off in the a secluded bubble of wealth, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe those who are different should be sent away, ostracized, or persecuted, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know which religion is best, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that not all Americans have the right to health insurance, if you think that only those who can afford it should have it, and that you are not somewhat responsible for the well being of your neighbor, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that the government doesn’t serve any critical function, or if you feel the deep desire to give up your compensation when you retire, if you have the concrete knowledge that you’ll never lose your job and you’ll never be in need of financial assistance–why bother having welfare?–vote Republican tomorrow.

If poor people are none of your concern and poverty–you’re sure–is a back burner issue, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to love, that the distinctions are clear, that the government should dictate to Americans who they can and can’t love, and  that feelings should be in the hands of Congress, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that corporations shouldn’t be held accountable for deeply destructive environmental policies and financial irresponsibility that has proven detrimental to millions, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re under the impression that the subprime mortgage crisis couldn’t have been  prevented by regulation and oversight, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you don’t believe in the American Dream and instead believe that those seeking it should be sent away en masse, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know that we need more wars, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that Texas oil billionaires need more money, that large companies should be able to fund major political campaigns, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re sure that old white men should make decisions about what does or doesn’t happen to bodies of young women, vote Republican tomorrow.

But if you’re interested in a future antithetical to the one just described, you may want to reconsider your vote. I cast my vote for the Democratic Party in 2010.