To Obama, that means someone who can see beyond the legal formalism that characterizes most court decisions and deliberations.
The official said that this is what Obama meant by "empathy" -- a capacity to relate to real world experiences, a capacity to bring, when relevant, non-legal perspectives into the court.
And someone -- importantly -- who can help tell a new story about justice and civil rights and the law to the American people, the official said.
Another senior official said that, for Obama, 95% of his decision-making would be based on the quality of the pick's jurisprudence and career, but that that final five percent -- the intangibles -- would be quite important.
Obama has interviewed at least two potential picks so far, meeting with Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Judge Diane Wood. Obama knows these two women well -- and, indeed, has pre-existing friendships with most every name on the leaked short list of names.
Some Democratic strategists close to the White House believe that Obama has already made up his mind, but White House officials said yesterday that he had not -- or, at least, he had not told anyone if he had.
So who does this extended definition of empathy implicate?