The Contemporary Presidency: The Political Utility of Empathy in Presidential Leadership

By Shogan, Colleen J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Political Utility of Empathy in Presidential Leadership


Shogan, Colleen J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


President Barack Obama made headlines during consideration of new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when he repeatedly stated that the personal quality of empathy would play a decisive role in the selection process. When Justice David Sourer announced his retirement, Obama vowed he would nominate someone who understands "how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives--whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation" (Obama 2009a). Even after pundits, politicians, and legal scholars took aim at Obama's inclusion of empathy as a required criterion for nomination to the high court, the president never wavered in his pronouncement) Obama's belief that empathy plays an essential role in political judgment is worthy of headlines because a president has never stated its importance so explicitly. Nonetheless, empathy has played an influential role in presidential leadership throughout American history, and has figured prominently in recent presidential administrations.

Empathy has the power to alter opinions, strengthen relationships, and foster an understanding of unshared circumstances or experiences. Martin Hoffman has developed the accepted psychological definition of empathy today: "Empathy is an affective response more appropriate to another's situation than one's own" (2000, 4). Notice that empathy requires a person to feel a shared emotion for the same reason the other person experiences it.

Empathy is the recognition or perception of another person's emotions. In simplest terms, empathy is feeling what another person feels (Hoffman 2000, 30). Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is the expression of compassion for someone else. Empathy is a distinct emotion because it requires an individual to feel the emotions of another human being. Psychologists have demonstrated that people do not possess the ability to express empathy uniformly; some individuals are more readily adept at empathetic behavior. (2)

Empathy may be particularly important in extended democratic republics such as the United States. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argued that small republics are preferable because the identification of the common good is sacrificed in a large republic (1989, 124). However, the presence of empathy in democratic leadership might help mitigate Montesquieu's concerns. A democratic leader in a large republic cannot understand the hardships of all of the citizens he governs. But the ability to empathize enables him to acknowledge and consider the problems of others. Empathy is not a perfect substitute for Montesquieu's "eternal republican" (1989, 131) ideal of the Swiss cantons, but it can provide valuable information for democratic leaders to discern the fuzzy outline of a common good.

Political scientists have paid little attention to the importance of empathy in politics and, in particular, to its importance as a critical leadership trait in American politicians. (3) With a comparatively weak party system in the United States, the American presidency has always been a highly personalized institution. The democratization of the presidential selection process and primary system has only intensified the importance of individual character traits and personality. Quite astutely, journalist Howard Fineman (2001) observed that Americans expect their president to serve as "empathizer in chief."

This article analyzes the importance of empathy in presidential leadership. Four presidents will be examined: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Abraham Lincoln. While Clinton may have overplayed his empathetic skill, Bush is a telling example of leadership lacking in empathy. In the middle, Lincoln is an example of a president who used his empathy to enhance his political leadership and decision making. I conclude with several observations concerning President Obama's emphasis on empathy, and his continuing quest to emulate the spirit of Lincoln in his leadership.

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