Empathy exits the presidential stage in January.
Say what you want about Barack Obama, the man has a great capacity for empathy. In fact, this nation is on a 24-year run of White House empathy. Say what you want about George W. Bush (remember the pile after 9/11) and Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton, they, too, were able to empathize with regular Americans.
But Obama will take that ability with him when he leaves the White House. And the vacuum is not going to be filled by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
We all want empathy in our leaders. In tough times, we crave it. And that’s true no matter their gender. We want those who lead us to understand our pain.
We also want them to soothe it. Empathy is good; empathy plus action is better. But the inability of one person, even a president, to solve our woes — whether because of the intractability of the problem, the intractability of Washington, or the fact it’s just plain outside the reach of his or her powers — remains a source of frustration.
The ability to empathize will define Clinton and Trump at Sunday night’s town hall debate, as much as their responses to Friday’s bombshell revelation regarding Trump’s disgusting comments about women. In a forum that cries out for empathy — voters will relate personal situations and ask a candidate what he or she can do to help them — viewers will watch closely to see how Clinton and Trump respond.
Will they listen to the questioner, really truly listen to what’s being said, or will they hear a word or phrase they recognize and use that to launch a campaign riff we’ve heard too many times?
Will they nod in faux gravity at someone chronicling a crisis as they try to decide which canned response is best? Or will they follow the lead of the poet Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
Empathy isn’t easy. I don’t mean to suggest it is. Another author, Milan Kundera, wrote that nothing is heavier than compassion: “Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
Obama gets that. You can see it in his face and hear it in his voice.
Can you imagine either Clinton or Trump as powerfully distraught while talking about the schoolchildren killed in Sandy Hook?
Can you picture either concluding a eulogy for victims of another mass slaughter by leading a church congregation in the singing of “Amazing Grace”?
Will either be able to heal the nation after disaster or tragedy, as presidents often are called to do?
Trump shows little capacity for real empathy. Self-absorption makes it impossible. And he’s running as the strong man, using stark language to describe a problem but never wearing the shoes of the people he paints as victims.
Clinton is more complicated. I believe she is capable of empathy. She can do it in small groups, as in an April session with Newsday’s editorial board when she talked about the economic straitjacket constraining so many Americans. And she’s shown genuine flashes of it in other town hall formats.
But it doesn’t come naturally, or she doesn’t let it come naturally. She guards her emotions like they’re jewels and is so determined to avoid mistakes she seems scripted. On the other hand, as a woman in the public arena, Clinton knows well the double standard to which women often are held when it comes to the expression of emotion. So she’s learned to project steely toughness, and that’s not so easy to shed. Especially not when the lights are white hot and the nation is watching.
Both of these candidates talk a lot about our problems. But we need them to feel those problems, too. To the extent that they cannot, that’s our loss, and theirs.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.