While plenty of people criticized President Barack Obama’s speech yesterday—“I react not as a President, but as anybody else would—as a parent"—I was less bothered by what he said than I was relieved by what he did: choke up, take a minute to gather himself and, through the rest of the press conference, wipe back tears. Of course, I thought. Crying is the appropriate response to have to a day like this.
Mia Farrow tweeted that it was the first time she’d seen an American president cry, and she might be right. It’s a significant step. In most of politics, and most of public life, we’ve been taught that emotion is the opposite of reason, that our feelings will cloud our judgment, and that the last thing an American president should ever do is trade swagger for sentiment. It was this view of emotion, of course, that helped justify the barring of women from public office. She just can’t handle it, was the refrain. The view of women as inherently more emotional than men is one feminists have been fighting for years, but just as important a fight is one over the view that our feelings somehow don’t belong in reasonable discourse. Where else should we start in our policymaking and our response to horrific events, if not at a basic empathy for our fellow citizens?
It was Obama’s empathy that made him presidential: the deep feeling he had for his own American story and how it fit with our country as a whole. He deployed it when he gave his "A More Perfect Union" speech on race in Philadelphia in response to the Jeremiah Wright scandal, and it has popped up in speeches in a thousand little ways since then. Bill Clinton did it before him, but Obama, as a thinker and figure, cut a sharp contrast to Mitt Romney and his mechanical view of a hierarchical leader. I never had any doubt that he had done good works in his church, as everyone testified, I just doubted that he was capable of the sort of—tenderness, I guess, is the best word—that Obama occasionally exhibited. It seems to come from a fundamental respect for the people he hoped to represent; Romney, in his most private moments, exhibited only contempt. I thought of that again when I saw Obama tear up. How nice it is to have a president who’s not afraid to cry.
Obama’s presidency has always felt, to me, the end of a sort of misogyny in America’s highest office. Obviously, we still have a long way to go. Only 20 women will be sworn into the Senate when the new class convenes in January, and Obama beat out our most likely female presidential candidate yet in 2008. But when Obama talks about a hypothetical child who wants to grow up to be president, he uses the pronoun, “she.” When he talks about his wife, he talks about a partner and a friend who does important work, he doesn’t thank, Romney did, wives “for taking up their slack as their husbands and dads have spent so many weeks away from home.” It may be appropriate in the long term for Obama to act more like a president than a parent, but when Obama said it, and began to cry, we know that he meant that he really understood.