Historian Robert Dallek has seen the ebbs and flows of national campaigns many times before, and he has studied presidential history in great detail. So, what is happening in the intensifying race between Democratic President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney fits into a fascinating historical context for him.
"For Obama, it's rather straightforward," Dallek tells me. "If people have the sense that the economy is back on the right track, that more jobs are available, and things are getting better, he will be in good shape. It's not that the economy has to come all the way back, It has to be moving in the right direction, and [recently] it has been doing better."
Dallek adds: "What favors Romney is a weak economy. What favors Obama is a strengthening economy."
Dallek, who has written critically acclaimed and popular biographies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, says Romney's wealth—a big target for the Democrats, who say his fortune has kept him out of touch—doesn't necessarily have to be a vulnerability. Dallek says three of America's most popular presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy—were also men of wealth and privilege, but each of them managed to connect with everyday people.
FDR and JFK built reputations for trying to help middle-class, working-class and poor people, Dallek says. "[Franklin] Roosevelt and Kennedy had the imprimatur of noblesse oblige and not savage capitalism," Dallek tells me. Theodore Roosevelt very aggressively took the side of what he called "the little man" and railed against the "malefactors of great wealth."
Today, Romney seems more interested in helping the well-off—at least that's his image, Dallek says, and the former Massachusetts governor has been damaged by his repeated flip-flops. This would be less harmful if Romney conveyed a commitment to pragmatism based on principle. The historian says Americans tend to forgive inconsistencies if they seem to be based on pragmatism and are "in the service of a larger vision." Instead, Romney comes across as "insincere" and "opportunistic," aiming to do whatever it takes to get votes, Dallek says.