A lack of empathy is pretty much a textbook description of antisocial personality disorder, or sociopathy. In other words, with his "controversial" statement, Obama essentially is saying that he doesn't want to appoint a sociopath to the high court. That shouldn't be too high a bar for Sonia Sotomayor to get over.
But here's the real question: How important will empathy be in other areas of the Obama administration? Will it be a trait of, say, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Holder?
Why is this question so important? It's because Obama and Holder inherited an unholy mess from the George W. Bush administration. Just the Don Siegelman and Paul Minor cases alone--in Alabama and Mississippi, respectively--account for four political prisoners. That number could rise to five if Siegelman returns to prison after the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unlawfully upheld most of his conviction.
So here is a question for the Obama inner circle: If you can't have empathy for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned, who can you have empathy for? And if you do have empathy for those people, but you take no steps to correct the injustice, what good is your empathy?
What does empathy mean to Obama? Dahlia Lithwick tells us in an excellent piece at Slate:
Webster's defines empathy as "the experiencing as one's own the feelings of another." Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, described empathy as "a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes." To Obama, empathy chiefly means applying a principle his mother taught him: asking, "How would that make you feel?" before acting. Empathy in a judge does not mean stopping midtrial to tenderly clutch the defendant to your heart and weep. It doesn't mean reflexively giving one class of people an advantage over another because their lives are sad or difficult. When the president talks about empathy, he talks not of legal outcomes but of an intellectual and ethical process: the ability to think about the law from more than one perspective.
That's good stuff from Lithwick, and it indicates that we have a top-notch human being in the White House. But Obama's desire to show empathy runs counter to his statements about "looking forward, not backward" regarding possible investigations of Bush wrongdoing.
Here's the rub: Having empathy requires you to look backward. You can't stand in somebody else's shoes unless you stop and look back at the circumstances that put them there.
If Obama looks back at the Siegelman case, for example, he clearly will see that the former Alabama governor committed no crime when he appointed a campaign contributor to a hospital-regulation board. After all, Obama himself is appointing campaign contributors to prized ambassadorships.
Mr. President, you inherited political prisoners from the previous administration. Will you look backward long enough to really see through their eyes?