Amanda Thomas wanted to share with Mitt Romney her long list of worries: a health-care law that will hurt her husband’s business, the debt that will burden her 2-year-old daughter’s generation, and the financial anxieties of her parents in their golden years.
“I’m worried about my baby and I’m worried about my parents,” she told the Republican presidential candidate, sitting at a picnic table in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
Romney’s response was brief. “I share the concern,” he said quickly before pivoting to a detailed explanation of the potential insolvency of Social Security and Medicare.
A day later, President Barack Obama was talking with four unemployed workers at a job-training program in the Cleveland suburb of Elyria. Seated on a stool, sleeves rolled up and wearing a tie, he asked them about the difficulties they faced in training for a new career.
Bronson Harwood, who’s been unemployed for two years, said he has grappled with his homework and had even less time to do it in recent days because of the phone calls leading up to the president’s visit.
Instead of offering sympathy, Obama cracked a joke, saying: “I’m not going to give you an excuse for not doing your homework.”
As they compete for the office that is the most personal to American voters, Romney and Obama are striving to show they can relate to the financial pressures facing working-class voters brought on by the worst recession since the 1930s.
Their discomfort is on display when they speak with white working-class Americans, a group defined as those without college degrees that polls and primary results show both men have struggled to win over.
Their 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 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.”
Almost 15 percent of the country is either unemployed or working part-time because of an inability to find full-time work. Though the economy is improving, Americans are earning less than they did before the recession. In February, median household income was 5.7 percent below its June 2009 level, when the recession officially ended, according to a study of Census Bureau data by Sentier Research, an economic-consulting firm based in Annapolis, Maryland.
“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.”
Obama has focused on Romney rather than the voters as way of saying that his circumstances more closely mirror theirs.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, Michelle wasn’t, but somebody gave us a chance,” Obama said last week.
The remark was interpreted as an attack on Romney, the son of George Romney, a former governor of Michigan and chief executive officer of American Motors Co., who grew up in a wealthy Detroit suburb.
Labeled as Elitist
Still, Obama himself has consistently had a difficult time winning over white, working-class, non-college graduates.
In both the 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton and the general election against Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama underperformed among whites and voters without college educations.
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 with these voters. 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.
Yet Obama’s ability to be re-elected doesn’t depend on winning a majority of these voters; in 2008, he became the first candidate to lose white voters by double digits and still win the presidency. He just needs to hold down the margins, according to Andrew Baumann, a vice president of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
“It’s never going to be a group that Obama connects with on a personal level, but Romney really helps him drive a contrast with these voters,” said Baumann.
Obama’s campaign is trying to make that contrast by holding events with workers who have been helped by his policies, visiting factory floors and pushing policy initiatives that center on the theme of economic fairness.
Both men are trying to appeal to NASCAR fans, and the approach of each underlines the challenge in making a connection.
During a February trip to Daytona International Speedway, Romney said he has some “great friends” who are NASCAR team owners. Obama, at an April 17 Rose Garden event honoring NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, didn’t include himself when he referred to the fans in attendance and joked that he was thankful to the drivers “for not tearing up my grass” when they arrived.
The burden is higher on Romney than on Obama. Voters may have grown used to the president’s way of interacting with them after almost four years in the White House. Romney, who just this month effectively clinched his party’s nomination, is still being introduced to a wider audience of independents and swing voters.
During a recent event at a guardrail factory in Canton, Ohio, hard-hat-wearing workers stared blank-faced when Romney explained to them how to galvanize steel.
“This is an interesting place,” he said. “You see a lot of steel around you.”
‘Couple of Cadillacs’
Remarks about his wife, Ann, driving “a couple of Cadillacs,” while extolling the virtues of American cars, and saying he likes “being able to fire people” before the New Hampshire primary only added to the sense that the wealthy former founding partner of Bain Capital LLC, a Boston-based private-equity company, doesn’t understand the concerns of average Americans.
It’s not for a lack of effort by Romney. He switched suits for skinny jeans, touted trips on Southwest Airlines and visits to the Subway sandwich restaurant chain, and frequently deploys his wife and sons to share family stories.
The former Bain executive also asks a lot of questions. The interactions can come across more like business consulting than compassion.
In Bethel Park, Romney quizzed Amanda Thomas, her husband, Jason, and six other local residents about their careers, children and concerns. The event, held around a picnic table covered in plates of cookies, pretzels and chips, was intended to capture the candidate engaged in casual conversation with ordinary Americans.
Todd and Kelly Wassel responded with an outpouring of economic anxiety. With a daughter in college and a younger son two years from high school graduation, Kelly said she’s worried about how to pay for both of their educations. Although her teaching job was safe, she watched cuts being made at nearby public schools.
“They’re going to have to cut here, cut there, cut that,” she said. “It looks good, but you never know when you’re on the chopping block.”
Todd Wassel, who said he has some job security as an aircraft mechanic, voiced concerns about the decline of good manufacturing jobs and what that meant for his children.
“It seems like the things that we build in the United States are just dwindling,” he said. “I like to see things built. I’d like to see my son grow up as an engineer building something here, not overseas.”
Romney responded with statistics rather than empathy.
2 Million Jobs
“In the last three years we’ve seen a reduction from just over 600,000 new businesses being started a year to just over 500,000 started a year. So, a reduction of 100,000 new businesses a year,” he said. “Now, had we not seen that drop-off, we would have had 2 million more jobs approximately.”
Jason Thomas asked how Romney would appeal to “Blue Dog Democrats” like his parents, working-class voters frustrated with the tax breaks they see given to wealthy taxpayers and corporations.
Romney couldn’t speak about a shared, hard-scrabble background. Instead, he warned voters not to be swayed by political attacks.
Then, he turned to the familiar: an impassioned appeal to patriotism that’s a mainstay of his stump speech.
“I love this country. I love the American people,” he said. “It’s everyday Americans that will make the decisions we have to make.”
Obama has shown a capacity to connect spontaneously. Last week during the Ohio meeting, he talked for less than a minute with Andrea Ashley, who told the president her home had been devastated by a flood. Ashley, 42, stood so close to Obama during his speech that she was able to read along on the teleprompter and was surprised and touched to see him mention her story.
“These folks inspire me, because a lot of them have gone through tough times,” he said. “Andrea is still dealing with the aftermath of the flood that damaged her home.”
“It was not in the teleprompter, but he added it,” Ashley said in an interview. “He really did take away things that we felt, and that meant everything.”
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.”