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


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: All views and opinions expressed herein are personal and not institutional. I would like to thank Matthew Glassman, Steve Stathis, and Lorraine Tong for their comments and assistance.

Colleen J. Shogan is Assistant Director of the Congressional Research Service, Government and Finance Division, in the Library of Congress.


In simple and precise terms, empathy is feeling what another person feels. It is the perception of another person's emotions. A debate over the importance of empathy in political leadership has generated considerable controversy since the 2008 election. However, Barack Obama's presidency is not the first to be affected by empathy; it has played an influential role in presidential leadership throughout American history. Focusing on the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, this essay explains why empathy is a critical governing and political resource, and argues that a paucity or excess of empathy can prove a dangerous liability for presidents.