Obama’s Empathy Team

Following a link from Glenn Reynolds to a Salon piece by Frances Kissling on whether “Regina Benjamin is too fat to be surgeon general,” I was instead struck by a closing that took a wild tangent:

Watching the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, I’ve found myself thinking about our president’s nominees and how many of them share elements of his background: People who have had hard lives, difficult childhoods and who have achieved amazing things. Some are middle-class like him, but many are working-poor. The idea of bringing into public life those whose experience enhances empathy rather than disdain for ordinary people is a refreshing change.

Now, it’s not entirely clear to me that Obama had a particularly difficult childhood but he did achieve amazing things.  Sotomayor certainly had a difficult childhood and likewise has had tremendous accomplishments.  Both are fine examples of what David Brooks describes as “the story of people in a meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.”

Whether Obama’s team is more filled than others in recent years with those who climbed to the top without a head start, I couldn’t say.  Certainly, there are examples of these types in every administration.

But Kissling’s sense of economic class is wildly distorted.

If Barack Obama was “middle class” at the time he was elected president, it’s only because we define that term so broadly.  He reported $4.2 million in household income for 2007, up from a mere $1 million in 2006.  Suffice it to say, the Obamas pay more in taxes than even most upper middle class people gross.

And, who, exactly has Obama appointed to any significant cabinet office who qualifies as “working poor”?  I don’t know what Dr. Benjamin earned last year but presume it was modest by medical doctor standards given the benevolent nature of her practice.  But, surely, she’s not impoverished.   Indeed, she recently won a $500,000 “Genius Award” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Did any members of Obama’s cabinet or subcabinet or other high-level appointees earn under $20,000 last year?  Under $50,000?  Under $100,000?  I’d be quite surprised.

(As to the opening question re: Benjamin’s weight, my initial reaction upon seeing her was that nominating an obviously obese woman as the country’s chief medical officer was a bad idea, given that obesity is perhaps the leading preventable cause of illness in this country.  Upon learning more about her, though, I believe her life story and professional achievements are extraordinary enough to compensate.)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Is growing up “working poor” a guarantee of empathy? I don’t think that’s obvious. Couldn’t it be argued equally that while growing up “working poor” gave you understanding of your fellows it denied you understanding of people who weren’t “working poor”? The overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t “working poor”.

    Further, understanding is a two-edged sword. It can equally lead to sympathy (something entirely different) or disdain. It’s not clear to me that empathy is a job qualification either for judges or surgeons general.

  2. Brett says:

    Obama might have had a rough younger childhood, but in his teen years he went to a top knotch private academy in Hawaii, so he’s not exactly that bad off.

  3. Gustopher says:

    (As to the opening question re: Benjamin’s weight, my initial reaction upon seeing her was that nominating an obviously obese woman as the country’s chief medical officer was a bad idea, given that obesity is perhaps the leading preventable cause of illness in this country. Upon learning more about her, though, I believe her life story and professional achievements are extraordinary enough to compensate.)

    Am I the only one eagerly awaiting her confirmation hearing, hoping that some senator asks whether she is too fat to be Surgeon General?

    Perhaps she could inspire us all with her magnificent, effective, well thought out weight loss program during Obama’s first term.

    And, of course, obesity can be caused by medical problems blah blah blah blah. (In my case, however, the extra weight is caused by beer and pie, and being less active after hurting my knee, but mostly beer and pie)

  4. James Joyner says:

    n my case, however, the extra weight is caused by beer and pie, and being less active after hurting my knee, but mostly beer and pie

    Mmmmm … beer and pie

  5. kth says:

    Within limits (i.e., not counting the mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), you can’t infer unhealthiness from largeness alone. Statisticially, being overweight has a lot of bad correlations (high blood pressure, diabetes), but by itself it doesn’t kill you unless you get so big you have trouble moving around.

    It would be perfectly legitimate to ask Dr. Benjamin what her cholesterol count is, her blood pressure, can she walk a mile without becoming winded or without her joints becoming too sore to continue. And if any of those factors are bad, what she’s doing to mitigate them. But most people trying to address their health issues don’t look like Lance Armstrong.

  6. Crust says:

    Come on James, surely it’s obvious that Kissling didn’t mean to say that Obama is currently middle class or that many of his appointees are currently working poor. His point was that Obama came from a middle class background and Sotamayor, etc. were brought up in working poor families. Admittedly, a literal parsing of what he wrote means what you say, so feel free to slam him — and his copy editor — for sloppy writing and editing. But as it stands, this is a pretty silly post.