I’ve frequently heard various Democratic operatives and Dem-supporting journalists asserting that Obama has empathy with the middle class, which (according to them) Mitt Romney lacks. Which raises two questions:
–What sort of middle-class empathy does Obama really have?
–What sort of empathy should a leader have?
Regarding the first question, it might help to segment the concept of the “middle class.” I think Obama’s attitude toward struggling blue-collar members of the middle class–especially those who live in small towns–is pretty clearly illuminated by his 2008 comment (at a private fundraiser) about such individuals being “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them..” His attitude toward middle-class small businesspeople shines through clearly in his “you didn’t build that” assertion. And his attitude toward upper-middle class professionals is demonstrated by his reflection about how boring it would have been for him to be a Wall Street lawyer, and his apparent belief that doctors regularly choose to amputate the feet of diabetic patients because it pays better than treating them.
In reality, Obama’s attitude toward the middle class is pretty much as the same as his attitude toward just about everybody else–contempt. At best, there is a sort of condescending pity, but rarely if ever anything approximating actual respect.
What sort of empathy should we want in a political leader, anyhow? As an analogy: imagine that you’re on an airliner that is in trouble and needs help from Air Traffic Control. You certainly want your assigned controller to care very deeply about the safety of your flight–but do you really want him to be spending his mental bandwidth “feeling your pain” in a Clintonian sense? Or if you’re a patient undergoing surgery, doesn’t the same point apply? You want genuine concern about getting the job done, but you don’t want or need a lot of emoting and especially you don’t want or need emotional display.
What you should want, in the case of a leader, is alignment of goals–you want the criteria by which the leader measures his own success to have a high overlap with the things you want him to accomplish. And it should be clear that if Obama succeeds in fundamentally transforming American society to something that accords with his vision–more centralized government power, a diminished private sector, a transition away from fossil fuels, a larger union movement, more focus on ethnic identities and less on common American identity, etc.–he will feel that he has succeeded, regardless of what happens to the standard of living and economic opportunities for middle-class Americans.