The gap between "I feel your pain and this is what we're going to do about it" and "I understand your pain and now we're going to come up with solutions" is large enough to drop an election through.
At least initially, when people are in pain, anger and fear they need to feel felt more than they want to be understood. The reason for that is that when you are alone in pain and fear, i.e., when someone understands but doesn't feel your pain, it can make negative feelings worse. When you feel alone, pain can quickly turn into suffering, anger into rage and fear into panic. When you don't feel alone, suffering can turn back into pain, rage back into anger (or even just frustration) and panic back into manageable anxiety.
From his background, I think one of the reasons President Bill Clinton can feel for others' pain may be that down deep he has experienced how pain and anger are flip sides of the same coin. He probably knows that area internally and so when he sees people who are frustrated and/or angry, he probably understands at least unconsciously that pain belies both.
Despite his challenges growing up, it seems that President Barack Obama has certainly known deep frustration, but it doesn't appear that he has known the level of pain and rage that President Clinton has known. Therefore when he faces angry people, he doesn't feel their pain, he fears their anger. This may explain why President Clinton can step into emotional tumult and remain centered, where it sometimes seems that President Obama is like a deer in the headlight of Congress, or frightened Main Street and arrogant Wall Street.
It is to President Clinton's credit that he turned whatever wounds and possibly torment he felt in his childhood into fierce determination. One gets the sense that his brother Roger (oh yeah, remember him?) was not able to do the same.
Underneath the anger of most people is pain and fear. In fact what we are seeing nearly everywhere from Wall Street to Main Street, from Republican to Democrat, from Boomer to Gen X and Gen Y is something known as "fearful aggression." What that means is that when people feel wounded, threatened and vulnerable, they become angry which at least keeps them mobilized as opposed to panicked which might cause them to freeze. This is something that show dog trainers know very well, i.e. that when a dog is afraid it growls and if you don't train it out of them you will never win at kennel club shows.
Training show dogs out of "fearful aggression" may work to win "best in show," but unless President Obama learns to step in and "feel our pain" it may prevent him from winning "best in 2012."
Follow Mark Goulston, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markgoulston