Congratulations to President Barack Obama on winning his second term. I am deeply proud to have helped re-elect him to be our leader. I do not agree with all of his policies. I have been disappointed with some of his decisions. But I am able to see past that, because when I look into his eyes, I recognize that we both value a single quality above all others: empathy.
And I believe it is his empathy that has won him this election.
When the Romney video was leaked secretly capturing him say that 47% of Americans consider themselves victims who suck at the teat of the federal government while he was at a $50,000-per-plate fundraising dinner, that pretty much summed up the compassion and understanding he has for the average American, his potential future constituency. The video showed that he is apathetic to the needs of the people he would be employed to serve.
Once that was out, his camp was on the defensive to prove just how empathetic he truly is. In an interview with NBC News, he cited his Massachusetts health care reform law — which he established when he was their Governor — as a prime example of his empathy. “I got everybody in my state insured,” Romney said. “100 percent of the kids in our state have health insurance. I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.”
But minutes later, he was promising to repeal President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a.k.a. “Obamacare” as soon as he entered office. Ironically, Obama patterned that statute off of Romney’s own state health care plan.
Then there was that whole debacle with the LGBT community in Massachusetts when Romney was Governor there. Boston Spirit Magazine reported that as Governor, Romney had fired two state employees because they wanted to marry someone of the same sex. And to top it off, he closed the Governor’s Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth in the state.
“Reports about [Romney’s] time as governor of Massachusetts sound more and more like he lacks the basic level of compassion for everyday people that attracts American voters,” said Zerlina Maxwell of the New York Daily News in September. She must be a mindreader because the notorious video was leaked less than a week later.
In her piece titled, Where is Romney’s Empathy? she goes on…
“While the Republican platform generally is hostile to gay rights, America as a whole is becoming more and more tolerant of marriage equality and families regardless of their make-up. Though Romney is usually assumed to have been a progressive on gay rights, the new revelations about his record would seem to run afoul of that growing tendency for tolerance.
“Consider this vignette: Julie Goodridge and David Wilson, two of the plaintiffs in the legal case that eventually led to marriage equality in Massachusetts, visited Romney while he was governor to put a human face on their experiences. After Goodridge relate to Romney a personal story about being blocked from hospital visitations for her eight year old daughter, the governor reportedly said, ‘I didn’t know you had families.’
“This response shocked Goodridge, who tearfully said to Romney on the way out of the meeting, ‘Gov. Romney, tell me — what would you suggest I say to my 8 year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?’
“Romney reportedly responded, ‘I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter. Why don’t you just tell her the same thing you’ve been telling her the last eight years.’
“Romney’s lack of emotion, those jokes about him being a robot, didn’t come out of thin air. There appears to be something missing in his interactions with ordinary people. Gay families are families. For the first time in years, a majority of Americans support equality for these families and their children.
“The man who wants to be President may be missing the required sensitivity chip.”
President Barack Obama came with the sensitivity chip pre-installed. It doesn’t feel retrofitted or like marketing smoke-and-mirrors.
The very next day after the full video was posted by Mother Jones, the Romney campaign released a one-minute ad where he speaks directly into the camera, somber and serious.
“Too many of those who are working are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to make falling incomes meet rising prices for food and gas,” he states. However he goes on to say, “We shouldn’t measure compassion by how many people are on welfare. We should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good paying job.” I think his suggestions for how to measure compassion demonstrate just how little compassion he has.
That same night at a stump speech in Toledo, Ohio, Romney dug himself into a hole even further.
“Most people that you see have some real challenges in their life of one kind of another. I understand that….We have people that are hurting, we have people who are disabled and people who are poor, they need our help and they receive our help. We’re a charitable people.”
His focus was on those who are worst off, though he didn’t express it with much emotion. Not the same emphatic tone that Obama uses. Furthermore he failed to acknowledge the needs for the majority middle class — not disabled, not poor, but yet still facing immense challenges to their livelihood and a much-less-than-acceptable quality of life. The average Joe, so to speak. The kind of person that is supposed to thrive in this country, supposed to be able to elevate him or herself to a better place. The kind of people President Obama looks in the eye and talks to directly every day.
See, in the same breath as expressing his concern, Romney undermines his own act; he simply cannot stop himself from kicking people while they’re down. He’s the high-schooler who gives you a hug so she can stab you in the back. At that same Toledo rally he went on to say:
“We’re going to insist that these people have the opportunity for work if they can carry out work, if they’re able-bodied. Because we are not going to create a society of dependence on government.”
Those words represent his true beliefs: that those who are able-bodied are choosing not to work, are choosing not to take opportunities that are presented to them, would prefer to depend on government assistance. Because that’s what he really believes — and President Obama most clearly does not.
Here’s the thing. It’s really no surprise that Romney isn’t capable of expressing a deep and honest understanding for the American people the way Obama does. Obama clawed his way to the top, and he sacrificed financial gain for achieving his greater purpose. He isn’t sitting on $250 million in assets like former Governor Romney is. And that in and of itself is what gives him the advantage.
In a September CNN article titled How inequality hurts Romney’s happiness, Jason Marsh explains:
“In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills.
“For instance, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that people of higher socioeconomic status were worse at reading other people’s emotions, a skill known as ‘empathic accuracy,’ a basic part of empathy. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers — including Dacher Keltner, my colleague at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center — made people feel higher or lower on the social ladder. Regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, people temporarily made to feel upper class had a harder time reading other people’s emotions; people made to feel lower class showed better empathy.
“This suggests that there’s something about the experience of high status that hurts our ability to connect with others emotionally. Other studies have suggested that high status makes people less compassionate, less generous and less interested in connecting with others in general.”
“‘Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative — these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness,’ says UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Paul Piff, the lead author of a study that found that people of higher socioeconomic status were less willing to share money with a stranger or make charitable donations. (However, when they were made to feel lower status, they became more generous; the opposite was true for people made to feel high status — they became stingier.)”
“The research linking wealth and empathy certainly suggests one reason why Romney has seemed to demonstrate callousness and trouble connecting with voters on the campaign trail, with his comments about the 47% being just the latest example. In light of this research, the video of Romney carries another troubling implication: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, making the rich less likely to feel compassion for the poor, thereby increasing the economic gap between them.
“But we probably don’t need to read too much research to appreciate how this empathy gap is bad for Romney’s happiness. Just look at a new Pew Research Center poll, which shows that he trails President Obama by 8 percentage points, and 43 points in the area of ‘connects well with ordinary Americans.’
It is President Obama’s “empathic accuracy” that has distinguished him as the most-qualified leader of our country since his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. His empathy cup overfloweth. So despite the lagging economy, the divisive social issues, his “socialist” healthcare law, people’s visceral response to his character outweighs it all.
And he has owned that empathy. He has written about it in his autobiographies and referred to it in many-an interview. He even told Oprah in 2006 that his mom was to credit.
When he were a guest on Charlie Rose four months after his 2004 DNC speech, President Obama explained, “When I see unfairness and injustice, when I see misunderstanding or the enormous, what I call ‘the empathy deficit’ that I think damages so much of our politics –”
Mr. Rose interrupted him. “What is ‘the empathy deficit?'”
He replied, with such conviction:
“The inability for people to stand in other folks’ shoes, which cuts both ways. When those of us who are in comfort can’t look at a child in Harlem or the South Side, who is in poverty and is not getting a good education, and not say to ourseves, ‘That’s just like our kid, they’re just as special as mine, so I’ve gotta do something about that,’ we’re not projecting, we’re not using our imaginations to see the other person. So I’ve got a stake in making that happen, in some way. I’ve tried community organizing and I’ve tried civil rights law, and now I’m trying politics. I’ve tried writing books. So sooner or later I’m gonna get it right.”
Oh has he. That “stake” as he called it has just won him his second presidential election.
He went on to say,
“Our common humanity can be obtained if we work for it. It’s not easy…It’s hard work to understand people who are not like you. It’s hard work to be able to empathize with those who have different experiences and different values than you. But the work is worth it because if you engage in that hard work then in fact it turns out under the surface that people care about the same things, they have the same hopes, they have the same dreams, and ultimately that’s going to be our salvation. That’s going to be how we’re able to live in this increasingly complex, fast paced and diverse world.”
I think that is beautiful.
Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has tirelessly edited dozens of clips of President Obama discussing the importance of empathy in his life. He has a whole 90 minutes of them.
But the most striking of all, I believe, were the remarks he made to Planned Parenthood in July 2007, in a Q&A following his speech, in which he expanded on his intent for nominating justices to the Supreme Court.
He said, “The issues that come before the court are not sport. They’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart to recogni — 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. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.” And he said a whole lot more.
So I’ve painted two very different pictures here. One is of former Governor Romney’s inherent incapacity to empathize with the common American’s needs; the other is of President Obama’s ownership of his empathy for the common American. This is what has been called The Empathy Gap throughout this election.
“Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney,” writes Charles Krauthammer of the National Review. “Why is he tied? The empathy gap. On ‘caring about average people,’ Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It’s the party’s only hope of winning in November.”
After the second presidential debate, The New York Times noted that while President Obama and former Governor Romney were running neck-and-neck in the polls, which we all saw they were until the very end, “…there is one gap [Romney] hasn’t closed: The empathy gap.”
It was a gap he was never able to close.
Exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for The Washington Post and by Langer Research Associates for ABC News, demonstrate the empathy gap even further. Voters overwhelmingly reported that the most important quality in a candidate is, “Cares about people like me,” and a whopping 81% of those voters voted for President Obama. Trailing by a mile, the second-place most important quality was, “Is a strong leader,” and 61% of those voters voted for former Governor Romney. So chew on that.
Empathy wins, every time.
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