Obama’s and Romney’s personas strike a contrast with other presidential candidates who campaigned successfully during economic hard times in part due to an ability to empathize. In past recessions, Ronald Reagan projected warmth, Bill Clinton a consoling manner, and Franklin Roosevelt a sense of bonding with people’s suffering.
“We have two candidates [Obama and Romney] who don’t project that image of feeling the pain,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “In 2008, being able to feel the pain of ordinary Americans wasn’t a critical thing. It’s going to be much more important this year.”
“Romney oozes wealth and privilege and upscale suburbs,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Obama, he said, has a style that “is cool and kind of elitist.”
Clinton and McCain both labeled Obama an elitist for telling a private group of donors at a San Francisco fundraiser that economically struggling working-class voters were “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”
It’s a label that continues to hurt Obama. Recent polls show Romney outperforming Obama with white voters who have attended some or no college, leading by 23 points, as compared to Obama losing that group by 18 points to McCain in 2008, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey.
White men in general have moved away from Obama -- while they gave McCain a 16-point advantage in 2008, they’re giving Romney a 26-point lead today.
The economic conditions may trump any difficulties the two candidates have connecting with the electorate on a personal level. Still, in difficult times voters may look for a president who moves behind-the-scenes empathy to the forefront, as Franklin Roosevelt was able to do.
When Roosevelt’s funeral train passed by a weeping man in 1945, a journalist asked if he knew the late president.
“I didn’t know the president,” he said, “But he knew me.”