Obama and Romney: Playing it safe, so far

Barack Obama
In this May 23, 2012, photo, President Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign fundraiser in Denver.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In the risky business of running for president, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are largely playing it safe.

For all the small daily dramas of the 2012 campaign, there's a risk-averse dynamic playing out: Neither candidate has been making bold new policy proposals or displaying a free-wheeling personal style. So far, at least.

Part of that is just who they are: Obama always has been known for his cool demeanor, and Romney has discipline built into his corporate pedigree.

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Neither of them has the swagger of former President George W. Bush, the renegade streak of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain or the rapscallion's grin of former President Bill Clinton.

But Obama and Romney are men who know how to gamble: Obama decided to run for president after just two years in the Senate, launched an ambitious health care overhaul effort while the economy was still on shaky ground, and gave the "go" order on the Osama bin Laden raid. Romney entered politics after a career in private equity, where risk is part of the job description. Despite their backgrounds, their caution as candidates extends well beyond personal style.

The president debated for weeks how and when to announce that he supports gay marriage, and only went public after remarks by Vice President Joe Biden nudged him along. When Obama finally did make his announcement, his words were carefully measured to tamp down any backlash. He spoke of dinnertime conversations with his daughters about treating people equally, and of abiding by the Golden Rule.

Romney, too, treated the issue gingerly, even as he disagreed with the president. He restated his opposition to legalizing such marriages, but called it a "very tender and sensitive topic" and said he supported extending certain rights to gay couples.

Mitt Romney
In this May 24, 2012, photo, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participates in a round table discussion at the Universal Bluford Charter School in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Political psychologist Stan Renshon, a professor at City University of New York, said Romney has clearly decided that the benefits of sticking to a script outweigh any downsides.

"His No. 1 priority at this point is to establish himself as a bona fide alternative," Renshon says, "and the less risky he sounds, the more conventional, the more boring, the better off he is."

And Renshon said Obama's even demeanor helps him fend off accusations that he's too radical. The president's re-election argument is a recitation of promises kept and a plea for more time to deliver on those yet to be fulfilled.

For now, Obama doesn't see the need to strike out in new directions. His announcement on gay rights, for all the commotion it generated, was largely seen as confirming what people already believed about him. And getting the word out early will make it feel like ancient history by Election Day.

Both candidates also have been wary in their interactions with the press -- to the point that Romney's aides recently tried to physically bar reporters from approaching the candidate to question him as he shook hands with people standing along a rope line.

The GOP candidate later tried to smooth over the flap by paying an impromptu visit to reporters in the back of his campaign plan. But he took note of what a rarity that was by observing that his press aide was "about to pass out." And, no, he didn't still didn't take questions. Obama, for his part, is happy to use the press when it suits his purposes -- he hastily scheduled a TV interview to reveal his shift on gay marriage -- and to pummel reporters when that fits his campaign narrative.

In a talk to graduates at Barnard College earlier this month, Obama lamented that "faith in our institutions has never been lower, particularly when good news doesn't get the same kind of ratings as bad news anymore. Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn't possible."

The candidates' wives also have been playing it safe for the most part.

Michelle Obama has largely steered clear of all the contentious talk about issues important to women -- contraception, abortion, the Violence Against Women Act and more. Her standard speech at campaign fundraisers ticks off a list of accomplishments by her husband. Her public appearances largely focus on her two signature issues of fighting childhood obesity and supporting military families, both widely popular and non-political.

Ann Romney, for her part, generally sticks to a script while campaigning for her husband, sharing warm and humorous stories about Romney family life and the challenges of raising five boys.

David Ropeik, a Harvard professor and author of several books on risk, said it's no surprise that the candidates are being cautious "in a no-holds-barred, 24-7, scream-a-thon world, where any hint of what the other side might see as an error is guaranteed to explode."

But Ropeik said both men need to know that being too careful can do them more harm than good.

"Candidates take a huge risk by being so buttoned up that they fail to express human sincerity," Ropeik said. "It's risky not to be sincere -- even though sincerity is risky."

As the campaign progresses, the candidates may well adopt more risky strategies to further their own ambitions, especially if the race remains close.

Obama, for example, raised eyebrows this week with a tough new ad that goes after Romney's record at the Bain Capital private equity firm. The ad quotes a former steelworker who compared the firm to a "vampire" that sucked the lifeblood out of companies.

The populist pitch may help fire up Obama's base of support but risks making it more difficult for him to attract voters in the political center.