empathy, a qualification for president?

I’m still reading and digesting  Amoris Laetitia, and will begin writing some reflections as soon as I’m done. Spoiler alert….chapter 4 is brilliant! In the meantime, I came across an interesting story on CNN this morning that ties in with my recent post on empathy.

The CNN article is titled,  Who’s really qualified to be President? 11 takes. Many of the women and men giving their opinions in the article have had direct access to presidents or worked in high level governmental positions. What struck me was how many times empathy was listed as a necessary qualification for a President.

David Gergen, senior political analyst for CNN and a White House advisor to four presidents writes,

Empathy and appreciation of differences: In a world best characterized as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, our new President must have an ability to listen and work collaboratively with people of vastly different perspectives.

Anne-Marie Slaughter,president and CEO of New America and director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011, believes that,

The qualifications that we should be looking for in a president—and I base this on my experience as a leader, a State Department official, and a citizen–are intelligence, grit, courage, empathy, and the ability to listen to what you don’t want to hear…Empathy is undervalued, but if a President cannot walk in the shoes of a citizen, an immigrant, or a human being half way around the world and feel what that person is feeling, s/he cannot lead in the way that people often yearn to be led.

Empathy is the only quality on Paul Begala’s list.

I believe empathy is the most important quality a president can have. This is an impossibly large, unimaginably diverse country. The ability to empathize with people of every race, religion, sexual orientation, region, generation, and ideology is critical. A president must be able to put herself — or himself — in the Guccis of foreign leaders, the cowboy boots of congressmen, the orthopedic shoes of the elderly, and the flip-flops of the young. Obviously brains help and rhetorical skills are a great asset, but for my money, empathy matters most.

Begala is a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator. He was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and a counselor to Clinton in the White House.

It doesn’t take a deep thinker to connect the dots of these reflections to a critique of a Donald Trump style of leadership. Trump’s rudeness and belligerence are obvious and easy to name.  Leaders without basic social graces and manners not only insult the people they serve, they are an embarrassment on the world stage.

Naming empathy  as a necessary qualification for a President points to an issue deeper than a nasty personality; an issue that can have far reaching consequences on both long term policies and critical moments when quick decisions are required. Empathy IS needed for a moral life and moral leaders are needed more than ever. Also needed are moral voters who can look beyond their own back-yard issues and vote for leaders who will work for peace, justice and good governance for all.


4 thoughts on “empathy, a qualification for president?

  1. Empathy is admirable, definitely a quality we should generally prefer. But there’s only two “necessary” qualifications – over 35, and a “natural born” citizen. All other qualifications are negotiable. At different times in history, a variety of personal qualities have been rendered more and less useful in presidents by external contexts.

    1. Hi Invisible Mikey! Perhaps different skill sets have been “rendered more and less useful” depending on historical circumstances, for example finances and economics, dealing with emergency measures or military strategies. But, I do believe that certain personal qualities should be expected from our leaders such as honesty, integrity, courage….and, yes, empathy.

      Of course, personal qualities are not as easy to prove as are the two “necessary” qualifications. Age and citizenship are easy to prove except, perhaps, to Trump! 😉

  2. Just after 9/11 British author Ian McEwan (Atonement) wrote an op ed (“Only Love and then Oblivian”) which appeared in the London Guardian. It should be compulsory reading for one and all. He contrasts the terrorists unthinking focus on a misplaced ideology of hate – shutting themselves off from empathy – with, what he saw as the pervading sentiment of the victims. He focused on the multitude of cell-phone messages of love and good-byes – the loving thoughts of victims facing their death – for spouses, children and friends. If the terrorists had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of their victims, he reflects, they would have been unable to pursue their heartless act of mass murder and destruction.
    These images give flesh to what is for me the greatest line in philosophical literature: “Love is a mutual benevolence mutually known”. It is a line from Aristotle, ironically from his treatise: “Ethics”. More irony, his Ethics is a prequel to his “Politics”. Reflecting on this work, it becomes eminently clear that “empathy”, love and friendship are basically gradations of the same human substratum of human community: compassion. Whether it is the civility of neighbourhood and city, the (real) politics of statehood, the intensity of friendship as well as the various intimacies of family.
    Reading your references to US presidential politics, it was curious to me that when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the US Supreme Court he was raked over the coals by many pundits for using that very term to characterize the personal dimension of her qualification for the position, i.e., empathy.
    The realist in me must note however, that in this “capacity to imagine myself into the thoughts and feelings” of “other”, do I “see” through the lens of the nurturer or that of the predator? The latter is what I term “the guru of hate”.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Dennis. As always, your reflections add depth to the topic at hand. McEwan’s observation is spot on. If only the murderer/terrorist/rapist/abuser could look in the eyes of their victim and stop and think of the violence they are inflicting. Empathy is not a wishy-washy liberal pie in the sky belief. It is at the core of who we are – or should be as humans.

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