The emergence of video secretly recorded in May, in which Mitt Romney speaks scornfully of President Obama's supporters, has sparked the inevitable comparisons to controversial comments President Obama made in 2008.

It was then, as a candidate in the Democratic primaries who continued to do poorly against Hillary Clinton with many white, blue-collar Democrats, that Obama spoke of "bitter" Pennsylvanians who "cling to guns or religion" to explain his failure to attract more of those voters.

For sure, there are some similarities, though they are mostly superficial. For instance, both Obama and Romney made their comments at tony private fundraisers: Obama in San Francisco; Romney in Boca Raton, Fla.

And certainly neither candidate knew his comments were being recorded for later Internet and TV news distribution. Once the comments were made public, both candidates had to deal with firestorms of controversy.

Also, both Obama and Romney were trying to explain to their well-heeled supporters why their campaign messages were failing to connect with certain voter groups.

Beyond that, however, the comments are qualitatively different to a wide degree.

It's difficult to read or listen to, in an open-minded and objective way, Obama's 2008 remarks without concluding that the then-senator from Illinois was demonstrating significant empathy toward the white, blue-collar, small-town and rural Pennsylvania voters of whom he spoke.

He also appears to be holding out hope that he can find a way to persuade them that his approach would do more to improve their lives than Clinton's.

OBAMA: "But the truth is, is that our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives."

By contrast, empathy isn't exactly the word the mind summons up after reading or listening to Romney's comments.

ROMNEY: "And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Jamelle Bouie, who writes for the progressive publication The American Prospect, made an observation similar to mine about the difference between their comments in a Monday evening post. So does Michael Tomasky, writing for The Daily Beast/Newsweek:

"Let's cut right to the chase. Is Mitt Romney's caught-on-video denunciation of half of America worse than Barack Obama's infamous "cling" comments of 2008, when he was similarly caught in flagrante? You bet it is. Not even close. The Romney video, brought to light by David Corn of Mother Jones, shows the candidate at his smug worst, while Obama was at least trying to express some empathy in his remarks."

Not that everyone sees things that way, of course. William Kristol, conservative influencer and editor of The Weekly Standard, insists that Obama's and Romney's private fundraiser utterances are morally equivalent:

KRISTOL: "So we have in 2012 two presidential candidates who — when they thought they were speaking privately to their fellow 1 percenters — have shown contempt for fellow Americans."

Apparently, empathy and contempt are in the eye of the beholder. But it will be a tall order for anyone to try to find any sliver of empathy for the "47 percent" in the words Romney uttered.

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