I Feel Your Pain: Empathy Matters For Students and Presidents

Bill Clinton's famous phrase "I feel your pain" has become a cliché, but voters want to feel candidates really do understand their plight.

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

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet