Commentary: Empathy as patriotism

By Keith C. Burris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Political News

Barring the nearly but not wholly unimaginable (it has been a crazy year), or an act of God, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in a few short weeks.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 rages and so do the heathen — all of us, left, right and center. We are angry, jumpy and generally alienated from each other.

The presidency is an impossible job anyway — structurally, politically, symbolically — and ideally should be broken down into parts and pieces and delegated out.

But that isn't going to happen, at least not on the main stage.

Biden will face not just an impossible job but an angry and heartsick country.

We are not only divided, but we have lost faith, in the system and in each other.

Perhaps only Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln faced rougher seas.

One thing Biden has going for him is a practical and deep understanding of the office of the presidency and its operational as well as political complexities.

That's a very good thing. To the extent that it is possible, he will delegate and he will surround himself with competence.

With competence, unfortunately, often comes arrogance. Some of the folks around President Barack Obama were very smart. But as a friend of mine, a longtime Washington correspondent, told me years ago: In Washington, everyone is smart, just ask any one of them.

What is really needed is wariness and a measure of humility.

That's another good thing about Joe Biden: He does not think he is the smartest guy in the room.

As a creature of Congress, he will respect Congress, even when he is at odds with Republican senators, for, again, he understands Congress and its members.

But the best thing about Joe Biden, and I am far from the first to say so, is his empathy.

He has suffered, mightily, in his life. So he really does feel the pain of others. And he really does see all Americans as family — all of us bound to each other.

Thus, we are obliged to listen to each other and help each other.

If Obama was the Visionary-in-Chief and Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Biden will be the Empathizer-in-Chief.

It sounds nice after a president who was a pit bull capable of much, but incapable of empathy.

But can it work? Can we progress under a Great Empathizer — Fred Rogers as the most powerful man in the world?

I am of two minds.

In an immediate and measurable way, mostly not.


Biden says he wants us to heal. I doubt the left or right are ready to try.

He wants an era of good feeling in Washington — on the Hill and between the parties. This will not happen on things like a Green New Deal. But it is possible on things like infrastructure and Social Security reform and maybe even immigration. It was always possible. Cooperation happens every day in Washington, on the lesser stages.

One key to Biden's success will be his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet. (And the first signs are comforting.) If he picks mostly old pros and pragmatists, a lot can get done. If he goes all woke and precious and tries to create another New Deal or Great Society, Washington's dysfunction will only deepen.

For we don't really need new programs and "answers" and initiatives and taxes. We need something far more important — something a president can help us achieve. We need a restoration of values, and faith in those values.

Here Biden can make a difference.

The model is not FDR, but Dwight Eisenhower.

Let us rest and renew ourselves.

Give us a break from politics and the presidency. Be the president, Joe Biden. But also let the country be.

If you travel the country's back roads as I just did for a few days, you see that America is still intact. Families still take care of each other, teachers still turn on the lightbulb in students' minds, people still hunt, and fish, and watch football, and cook, and work on old cars, and pray on their knees on Sundays.

We're actually OK. We just need to escape the blue and the red and the fulminating haters on TV and social media for a while.

The other model for Biden is Biden. Just be what you were during the campaign, sir — a national grandpa, who knows how government works and can forge a compromise, but, most of all, believes empathy equals patriotism.

Wearing a mask and social distancing, says Biden, are acts of civic piety — and brotherhood.

This kind of Biden presidency can succeed. Because the president is not, in the end, primarily the master legislator or reformer. He is the caretaker of the American ideal and the American ethos.

Biden did not really run on issues. He ran on restoring the nation's soul. He should stick with that — the theme that got him nominated and elected.

When he talks about the dignity of every American, reminds us that we can be adversaries without being enemies, and ends every speech with "May God protect our troops," he is edging us toward restoration.

A presidency based on American values, rediscovered and restored, is worth a try.



Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@post-gazette.com).

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