It was during his first presidential campaign in the spring of 1992 that Bill Clinton uttered the now famous words, "I feel your pain." The setting was a New York City fundraiser, and he was responding to AIDS activist Bob Rafsky who was pushing him to take a stand and address the AIDS epidemic sweeping across the country.
The phrase has since become a cliché and has been immortalized on Saturday Night Live. In an important way though it defined the strength of Clinton’s campaign and his presidency: the ability to connect directly with the public and inspire confidence among voters that he understood their plight. Here's a good example of this talent in action, during the first-ever televised town hall debate that fall.
Forget, for a moment, the content of his message: just look at Clinton’s body language and eye contact and compare him with Bush, who infamously looked at his watch as a voter asked the question and seemed uncomfortable throughout. Many saw this as a turning point in the campaign.
Fast-forward 20 years. Once again we find ourselves in the midst of a recession—this one much deeper and more painful than the recession of the early 90s. Once again the ability to connect and empathize has become a central part of a presidential campaign. Much has been made, in particular, of Mitt Romney’s perceived empathy gap—occasionally displayed by moves such as his spontaneous $10,000 bet.
Whether his empathy deficit is real or simply perceived is for the voters to decide, but the fact remains that it has become a central political issue. Pundits on both sides of the aisle have speculated that the empathy factor might be strong enough to counter the strong headwinds President Obama would normally face during our difficult economic times. On the defensive, Romney has begun referring to his Massachusetts health plan as a sign of his empathy for others.
During the first debate, empathy was on display from the beginning. In his opening statement, Romney invoked various struggling women he'd met on the campaign trail: a woman in Ohio who has been unemployed since May and asked 'can you help me?'; another woman with a baby in her arms who had just lost her home. He was replaying Clinton, implicitly telling middle class Americans that he feels their pain.
The desire to connect permeated both conventions as well. Ann Romney, for instance, took it upon herself to get her husband's human side across, describing everything from their younger years of living in a basement apartment and eating tuna fish (translation: "we know what difficult times are like") to Mitt’s record of generous charitable giving.
This is not—nor should it be—a partisan issue. We shouldn't forget that in 2004, George W. Bush was running as the compassionate conservative and John Kerry was the one who couldn't connect. Even President Obama has had to fight the perception of the aloof professor who can "get you" on an intellectual level but not in that instantaneous emotional way that Clinton could.
The fact is, it matters to Americans that their leaders—and especially their presidents – display empathy. It matters because we want to feel represented. We want to feel that our struggles and anxieties are understood and will influence the political process in Washington. A concern with a candidate's capacity for empathy translates into how we think a president will act. Will our interests be heard amid the insistent clamor of special interests? This is not an issue of mere likability—which is sometimes mistakenly conflated with empathy as the New York Times did in August. As we wrote in these pages, empathy cannot be reduced to a PR asset. American voters look for it in candidates because they recognize it as a quality that’s necessary for sound and inspiring leadership.
All of which begs the question: if a candidate's capacity for empathy influences how we vote for the leader of the free world, and if Mitt Romney recognizes that this election could turn on his ability to "connect," isn't it about time we made a special point of cultivating empathy in our kids?
A version of this post originally appeared at Start Empathy.
Silhouette of politician via Shutterstock