WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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 still didn’t take questions.