Voters don't need 'empathy' from Trump on gun violence, they need action

Key Points
  • The "listening event" at the White House on gun violence was a good thing for the country.
  • But it produced some embarrassing moments for President Trump and a focus on his apparent lack of empathy.
  • The good news is we don't need an empathetic president, we need a sympathetic leader who can get things done.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Samuel Zeif weeps after talking about how his best friend was killed during last week's mass shooting while he participates in a listening session hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 21, 2018 in Washington, DC.
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Wednesday's White House listening session on guns may actually provide America with some needed clarity, not just on the issue of gun violence but on political leadership.

It was positive, but also risky for President Donald Trump to host some very hurting people so soon after the Florida high school mass shooting. At an event where extreme tact and care was required and no teleprompter was used, this famously unpolished and unrehearsed president did not emerge unscathed.

He showed decency by facing these victims on live TV. But he also took some verbal abuse from people who needed to vent. More criticism came when he suggested that arming certain teachers would make schools safer.

Then, Trump came under attack for an entirely different reason. The Associated Press released a close-up shot of the note card he was holding that included bullet points reminding him to show certain emotions and say, "I hear you."

The response was predictably filled with anger and ridicule. The Washington Post showed the card and ran an accompanying editorial with the headline: "This photo of Trump's notes captures his empathy deficit better than anything." Others followed suit in other newspapers, TV news and social media.

It would be easy to write off this part of the story as simply another example of anti-Trump critics once again seizing on one of the president's real or imagined human failings. Trump supporters have already countered with predictable reminders about President Barack Obama's seemingly heavy reliance on the teleprompter when he was in office.

But the more constructive takeaway from this event and the reaction to it is to note the difference between what American voters and pundits seem to want and what they actually need from our political leaders.

Note that most of the reactions from the event and especially the use of the note card focused on the word "empathy" as opposed to "sympathy."

Let's use conversational examples to define the two:

Empathy = "I understand exactly what you are going through. I lost my own child years ago. It's a pain you cannot even describe to another person."

Sympathy = "I'm really sorry. I feel for you. I can't imagine what you must be going through."

See the difference?

An empathetic person is literally just as wounded as the current victim. Some victims are able to act rationally and effectively, but it's understandable that many cannot.

A sympathetic person still cares about the situation and pain another is going through but is more likely to act with a bigger picture effect in mind.

To put it very plainly, America needs sympathetic presidents and political leaders — not empathetic ones.

One politician who talked an emotionally charged empathetic game, but acted with more sympathetic efficiency was President Bill Clinton. Clinton famously had his "feel your pain" moment in the second 1992 presidential election debate when he excelled at answering a voter's question about how he and the other candidates could solve the recession if they weren't personally suffering from it.

But while projecting that empathetic image, Clinton acted with more sympathetic coolness to help improve the economy as president. Most notably, he made the deals with the Republican Congress to cut capital gains taxes and reform welfare that helped spur major growth and even four years of budget surpluses. Would a truly empathetic person suffering from economic hardship make those same moves that seemingly helped the rich before the poor? It doesn't seem very likely.

On guns and many other issues, Trump seems unable to show much empathy. But his comments and actions of the last few days prove he is a sympathetic president who does seem to want to get things done:

What we're seeing now is a president who wants to do something not out of empathy, but as a leader who sympathizes with the problem. Of course, Trump must follow through with these promises to prove his effectiveness. But it is efficiency we should seek from this president and any president. The role of "Healer-in-Chief" isn't useless at times like this, but it's simply not as important.

We've been accustomed in America to being persuaded by and voting for candidates who seem to respond to issues and situations "just like we would." For a large segment of American voters, President Trump will never achieve that personal connection. He has himself mostly to blame for that.

Using the right words and showing the right emotions are still crucial in American politics. But for the president of the United States, actions speak louder than words.

What America needs now is action.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.