These Are the Most Empathetic Presidents, and Why Donald Trump Doesn’t Make the List
The men who have served as president of the United States have had very different personalities. Some were very intelligent, while others weren’t particularly smart. A few had a lot of emotional intelligence. Others had extroversion, assertiveness, self-discipline, and other important presidential traits on their side. But what about empathy? Which presidents were the most empathetic? And how does Donald Trump compare?
Read on to get all the details on the most empathetic presidents. And learn how Donald Trump compares on page 11.
1. John Adams
- 2nd president of the United States
Historian Ronald Feinman points to John Adams as one of the most empathetic presidents, even though history books don’t always agree on Adams’s legacy. The Presidential Ham notes that Adams “genuinely loved and had deep compassion for humanity.” Yet he “never learned to deal with individual human beings.” That could explain why he alienated most of his Cabinet.
Additionally, the Miller Center notes that Adams attracted a lot of criticism for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. (These laws restricted the activities of foreign residents, and limited freedom of speech and of the press.) But Adams never advocated for their passage, nor personally implemented them. “Seen in this light,” the Miller Center explains, “Adams’s legacy is one of reason, virtuous leadership, compassion, and a cautious but vigorous foreign policy.”
Next: This president didn’t make many friends as president. But he did show empathy as a congressman.
2. John Quincy Adams
- 6th president of the United States
Feinman also counts John Quincy Adams among the most empathetic presidents. But that quality wasn’t always obvious to Adams’s contemporaries. As Presidential Ham explains, Adams “was both introspective and uncommonly candid in admitting his own shortcomings.” So his own writings give a pretty clear picture of his personality, including his “reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners.”
PBS reports that during Adams’s presidency, he advocated for “large, federally funded projects meant to improve society.” Those included road construction, educational institutions, and a national observatory. But Adams never achieved many of these projects. He served just one term as president. But then, as The Atlantic notes, he became known as an antislavery congressman. Adams cited the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality “in an improved future, rather than an idealized past” in opposing slavery.
Next: This president’s empathy became one of his biggest assets.
3. Abraham Lincoln
- 16th president of the United States
It’s no surprise to see Abraham Lincoln on Feinman’s list of the most empathetic American presidents. As Fast Company reports, biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Lincoln had such a huge influence on his allies and adversaries because of his “extraordinary empathy — the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires.”
The Harvard Business Review reports that Lincoln made a point of keeping his strongest feelings private. That way, he could appreciate everybody else’s perspectives. And he could “speak to each of them in the relevant contexts, without obsessive public regard to his own deep-seated thoughts and feelings.” Helen Nicolay, whose father became Lincoln’s private secretary, wrote of Lincoln, “His crowning gift of political diagnosis was due to his sympathy, which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.”
Next: This president empathized with slaves during the Civil War.
4. James A. Garfield
- 20th president of the United States
Feinman also puts James A. Garfield on the list of the most empathetic presidents. The News-Herald notes that Garfield was a civil rights activist “ahead of his time.” His letters during the Civil War reveal his empathy for runaway slaves. And Garfield said in his inaugural address:
The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect on our institutions and people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relationship which enfeebled both.
Biography reports that when he assumed the presidency, Garfield recommended “a universal education system funded by the federal government, in part to empower African Americans.” He also appointed several former slaves, including Frederick Douglass, to prominent government positions.
Next: This commander-in-chief lands on anybody’s list of the most empathetic presidents.
5. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
Most Americans wouldn’t be surprised to see Franklin D. Roosevelt on the list of the most empathetic presidents. PBS reports that after Roosevelt began to struggle with polio, he developed a new appreciation for other people. “He reached out to know them, to understand them, to pick up their emotions, to put himself into their shoes,” PBS notes. “He came to empathize with the poor and the underprivileged, with people to whom fate had dealt a difficult hand.”
U.S. News points to Roosevelt’s “ability to empathize with his fellow citizens, to show that he cared for them and would do everything he could to help them,” as one of his most important attributes as president. nd The Huffington Post characterizes Roosevelt as “a man who knew and felt pain every day as a result of his polio” and appreciated Americans’ pains. Yet Roosevelt failed to feel empathy for 100,000 Japanese-Americans whom he forced to relocate to concentration camps.
Next: This president empathized with Americans in need.
6. Harry S. Truman
- 33rd president of the United States
Because of Harry S. Truman’s infamous choice to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , most Americans would probably feel more inclined to count Truman among the ranks of presidents who were terrible people, rather than the presidents who displayed empathy. But Truman does credit for his empathy for one group of people: Americans who needed health insurance.
As The New York Times reports, Lyndon B. Johnson shared the credit for the creation of Medicare with Truman. Johnson noted that in 1945, Truman had called for national health insurance, planting “the seeds of compassion and duty which have today flowered into care for the sick, and serenity for the fearful.”
Next: This president empathized with people in Soviet countries.
7. John F. Kennedy
- 35th president of the United States
Feinman also places John F. Kennedy on the list of the most empathetic presidents. The Huffington Post cited Kennedy’s American University speech as an easy example. In that address, Kennedy “spoke with empathy and compassion about the Soviet people, recognizing our common humanity, the fact that we all ‘inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.'”
And as Kennedy’s nephew, Ted Kennedy Jr., once asserted in an opinion piece for The Hartford Courant:
Whether people were marginalized because of their physical or mental condition, their skin color or their religion, President Kennedy felt deep concern for their personal experiences. He also understood that society had so much to gain by integration and inclusion.
Next: This president, like others on the list of the most empathetic commanders-in-chief, was complicated.
8. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
Feinman places Lyndon B. Johnson on the list of the most empathetic presidents. After all, his legacy does include the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, and Medicare. But not everybody agrees on the topic of Johnson’s personality, with some giving Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War precedence over his domestic achievements.
New Republic reports that Historian Michael Kazin faults those who would portray Johnson “solely as a paragon of empathy, a liberal hero with a minor flaw or two.” But according to New Republic, “Johnson’s magnificent achievements in civil rights and other areas of domestic policy and his disastrous prosecution of the Vietnam War both deserve prominence in the history books.”
Next: This president had very high emotional intelligence.
9. Bill Clinton
- 42nd president of the United States
Newsweek reports that Bill Clinton “projected the natural empathy and communication skills of a born politician.” Medical Daily argues that among the ranks of recent presidents, the two with the highest emotional intelligence have been Bill Clinton and his successor, George W. Bush.
“Both of those had an uncanny ability to really hone in on someone, feel their pain, and make them feel like they were the only person that mattered in the room,” the publication explains. “People who have met both walk away awed by their off-the-charts EQ (with Bill Clinton on the extreme high-end).”
Next: This president talked about an ’empathy deficit.’
10. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
Barack Obama famously decried the “empathy deficit” in the United States, at least in the U.S. government. Obama once said, “There’s a gap in terms of sympathizing for those folks in New Orleans as bad as sympathizing with folks elsewhere.” But he added, “It’s not a gap that the American people felt, because we saw how they responded. But somehow our government didn’t respond with that same sense of compassion.”
Slate reports that as president, Obama “wore his empathy like the flag pin on his collar.” But the publication went on to say that too much empathy can be a bad thing. Empathy “pushes a president into roles he’s not really suited to play: job counselor, psychotherapist, loan officer,” Slate explains. “Whether at the gas pump, in the grocery aisles, or on their mortgage statements, people are constantly seeing scary numbers. To keep up with all that anxiety, the president-as-therapist would have to hold office hours every day.”
Next: How does Donald Trump compare to the most empathetic presidents?
11. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
Donald Trump is a lot of things. But empathetic probably isn’t one of them. Penn State News reports that Americans want their presidents to show the ability to care about average Americans. The Week adds that “At some point or other — and usually with regularity — the president of the United States is going to have to act as consoler in chief,” showing empathy for the victims of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and other tragedies. But The New York Times reports of Trump that “consoler in chief has been a role that the president has been slow and somewhat reluctant to embrace.”
As CNN notes, Trump doesn’t seem particularly concerned that he lacks empathy. And according to The Chicago Tribune, any deficit in that department also fails to bother “Trump supporters who come from America’s heartland and who, by and large, are outwardly stoic by nature,” and therefore don’t mind if the president is, too.
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