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Obama shows his empathy

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David Broder
May 30, 2010
— It took almost a full hour of President Obama’s news conference for the professor-president to come down from his lecture platform and show the human reaction to the Gulf oil leak accident that people had been looking for.

Early on, he referred to it as a “tragedy,” but the rest of his words were characteristically calm -- precise and clear but hardly betraying any emotion.


When we elect a president, we understand that we are not hiring an actor, and that we are not entitled to expect him to fulfill all our audience needs. But we still want to think that the person who leads our country shares and reflects our feelings.


Politicians know this. A few hours after Obama addressed the media on Thursday, CNN showed a news clip of Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana legislator who was talking at a hearing about the impact the oily pollution was having on the wetlands of his native state -- and had to stop because he was weeping so hard. There was instant empathy.


Obama does not ask or get that. What he offered instead was exactly what his constituents have seen since he was elected: A clear sense that he understood the situation, that he was in command and that he fully accepted the responsibility.


He made all that unmistakably clear, as he had done in other moments when his leadership was being tested: In Philadelphia, during the campaign, when he had to deal with the issue of race raised by his former pastor’s inflammatory comments; in the opening weeks of his presidency, when the nation tottered on the brink of financial collapse; when he set the course in Afghanistan and committed thousands of additional U.S. troops; and when he asked Congress to try once more on health care reform.


I doubt there were very many Americans concerned about the events in the Gulf who did not find a substantial reassurance in seeing Obama taking the heat on the crisis.


But then, finally, he gave the country something more -- a brief glimpse into what the challenges of his job mean to him personally.


“When I woke up this morning and I’m shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, ‘Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'”


The next sentence leaps from the mundane to the universal. ”I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations.”


What he says next is so simple and personal that its authenticity cannot be doubted: ”I grew up in Hawaii, where the ocean is sacred.” And back to the shared reality: “And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers and turtles dying” -- as every viewer now has had to watch -- “that doesn’t just speak to the immediate economic consequences of this; this speaks to, you know, how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have.”


And then he focused directly on the people living near the Gulf. “Sometimes, when I hear folks down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that their comments are fair. On the other hand, I probably think to myself, you know, these are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this as an integral part of who they are. And to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating.”


What began as a defensive academic exercise ended on a much better note.


David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com

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