With the economic recovery looking very anemic and unemployment still high, people are questioning whether President Barack Obama has empathy for the suffering of those struggling to find jobs or make ends meet.
Ann Curry, anchor for NBC’s Today show, asked Obama:
“You know, that — with 14 million Americans unemployed, and another eight and a half unable to get full time work — that there is a lot of human suffering attached to this — we’re talking about bankruptcies, homelessness, hunger, you know, the stress of this, the shame of this — people have started to wonder, because you speak so calmly about this, whether you really, truly empathize with these people who’ve lost their jobs, who are suffering. And people are asking: Why are you not angrier? Why are you not angrier about what is happening here?”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, said:
“the President is not only out of touch, he has no basis of understanding how to deal with the economy, much less the energy crisis. — We’re not hearing from the President that he even begins to understand this horrific situation that a lot of Americans are in. It’s really shocking, Sean, the lack of empathy that this President has. I talk to people. I care about people. I’m in my district — The president has no understanding of what is happening in real people’s lives.”
And former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) — currently a contender for the Republican presidential nomination — has put out an ad responding to Obama’s claim that, “There are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery”. The ad depicts people lying down in a road and then stating, “I’m an American, not a bump in the road”. The ad then claims, “President Obama’s 20 million bumps in the road would stretch from the White House to Los Angeles and back”.
This is all derisive caricature, as is usually the case when somebody’s empathy is questioned. Obama’s not dim or malicious, he knows people are suffering and wants it to stop. Maybe he’s enacted the wrong policies to spur job growth and economic recovery. It’s fine for people to think that. Economics is complicated, and people can reasonably disagree about what will get the economy going and lower unemployment. But there’s no need to chalk the situation up to Obama just being unaware or ambivalent about human suffering. Actually, there’s good reason not to, because it’s name-calling.
The “lack of empathy” allegation is an old standard when it comes to demonizing opponents. Columnist Charles Blow recently used it when he described Republicans as having “an unshakeable immunity to empathy”. And Jonathan Cohn also resorted to it, when he seemed to think that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) needed to be reminded that, “Fiscal results aren’t the only way to measure a budget. The human toll matters too”.
Ryan knows that we have to take into account how the budget affects human beings, just like Obama understands that unemployed people aren’t road bumps. To suggest otherwise is nothing more than demonizing.
The “out of touch” accusation that Bachmann makes is similarly derisive, in that it suggests that Obama isn’t even aware that the economy is bad. Of course he knows the economy is bad, to say otherwise is just more name-calling.
Ironically, in the same way that people are now disparaging Obama for his “bump in the road” remarks, Obama’s own presidential campaign disparaged Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) after McCain said that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong”. Turnabout may be fair play or poetic justice, in some sense, but it doesn’t set a very good example. Nor does it contribute to informed civil debate.