Barack Obama, reconciling the contradictory realities of Mitt Romney's hard fall with a race that remains stubbornly inside the margin of error, is running as the kind of careful, poll-watching politician he disdained the first time he ran for president, according to Democratic and Republican observers.
Obama 2012 has become the silver-templed soul of caution, embracing Napoleon's dictum of "never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake," in the opinion of one veteran Obama campaign aide.
In doing so, Obama's campaign team is seeking to take advantage of Romney's own well-chronicled reluctance, at least so far, to release a slate of policy proposals comparable to the detailed blueprints put forth by Obama and other candidates four years ago.
At the moment, both candidates have a bad case of the vagues heading into their trio of debates -- but the dangers of an audacity-free campaign may have especially nasty consequences for Obama, whose calling card, even now, is boldness and transformational change.
"I see elements of caution, no doubt about it, and it's as wrongheaded as a basketball team that's up by 17 or 18 points trying to hold onto the ball," said Clinton-era Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania.
"And the only reason they're up anyway is not because of anything great they did on offense or defense, but because the other side keeps making mistakes. The implosion had nothing to do with the Obama campaign, really, so they can't afford to lay back at all or it will depress turnout."
A veteran Democrat with close ties to the Obama campaign was a little more charitable: "This is not an easy environment, and taking a lot of risks is insane," the person told POLITICO.
Steve Schmidt, John McCain's 2008 campaign senior strategist, said Obama's team would be wise to get more specific and less cautious in a race that is still within Romney's reach.
That would be closer to the strategy Obama used to beat Schmidt's former boss: Take calculated risks that define Obama as a candidate who breaks the mold of a conventional politician.
"It's very clear they're playing prevent defense. ... That defense has been a road to many a ruin," said Schmidt, who dismissed the notion that the race is over. "The race is structurally very, very close. There are many chapters yet to be written in it, and if you look at the last series of interviews, you see why Romney [could] be able to get his momentum back at some point. ... The criticism of Romney's campaign -- his lack of specifics -- are absolutely legitimate points. So is the criticism of the administration for essentially the same thing."
A president who once criticized Bill and Hillary Clinton's "poll-driven" calculation -- and the slice-and-dice approach to electoral targeting adopted by Clinton pollster Mark Penn -- brushed off Democrats who suggested that Obama outline a detailed policy vision for his second term at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month.
That's not the only area where Obama is playing it safe.
Obama's team has always been wary of the beat reporters who cover him most closely in the West Wing, but seldom has access been so pinched. He's been less available to the working national press than Romney -- who has suddenly increased his accessibility to the media.
When Obama's team makes him available, it's not to the political press but to state and local media more likely to give him unfiltered access to battleground voters.
And his few national appearances are tightly controlled. Over the past several weeks, Obama has delivered a series of light-on-news appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "60 Minutes." His most serious grilling came at the hands of a Univision anchor -- a necessary risk to capture the critical Hispanic vote. But most of the time, his staff has safeguarded his reputation, going so far as to request clearance of some quotes from author Michael Lewis, who interviewed Obama for a Vanity Fair profile.
If one day exemplified the risk-averse strategy, it was Monday. In New York, Obama decided to skip the usual round of potentially messy one-on-one meetings with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly but had time for a joint appearance with first lady Michelle Obama on "The View" with Barbara Walters and the gang.
Reporters pressed White House press secretary Jay Carney on his boss's decision to skip the typical "bilats" with world leaders, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has publicly pressured Obama to take a tougher line with Iran.
"What do you make of the Republican complaint that the president has time to tape 'The View' and no time for Prime Minister Netanyahu?" asked Wendell Goler of Fox News, one of several reporters who hammered Carney about Obama's day.
"I'm not going to preview every minute-by-minute of the president's schedule when he's in New York," Carney said to another reporter who raised the issue. "Secondly, the president just in recent weeks has had intensive consultations with leaders in the region, with the leaders of Turkey, of Egypt, of Israel, of Yemen, of Libya, of Afghanistan. And that process will continue."
Despite his self-professed penchant for audacity, Obama has always been a careful candidate who seldom makes a move without calculating the risks and running it through a polling and focus-group operation that costs his campaign at least $1 million a month.
Adopting a cautious approach is "a pretty standard incumbent" strategy, said Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, adding that it's "amazing that Obama can get away with it with 38 percent [of voters] who say the country is on 'the right track.'"
If Obama does succeed, Kristol said, "it will be because of Romney's play-it-safe strategy, which has allowed the Obama campaign to make Romney riskier than a second term of Obama."
Democrats close to the president say Obama has any number of reasons for not laying out a specific set of new proposals for a second term, including his unwillingness to stake out a bargaining position ahead of the lame-duck congressional session at year's, end when the fate of Bush-era tax cuts will be decided.
But there's a larger political reality, too. Obama will only show as much leg on policy as Romney forces him to in order to avoid offending any group of voters, Democrats say.
That means introducing few, if any, big new proposals, instead drawing from a warehouse full of previously released material, including year-old deficit-reduction and jobs plans that stand virtually no chance of being passed by this Congress or the next without a radial rewrite.
When POLITICO asked a senior Obama staffer if the president is shying away from new proposals, the aide shot back in an email: "We should talk after you read the 85 page deficit reduction and revenue plan and the entire legislative text of the American [J]obs [A]ct."
Obama himself cast the race as a choice between two philosophically opposed governing approaches rather than dueling policy plans in a Cleveland speech on the economy during the summer.
"What is holding us back is not a lack of big ideas," he said then. "It isn't a matter of finding the right technical solution. ... What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate."
Since then, Obama's campaign has continued to emphasize the big picture -- one in which the president is on the side of the middle class -- instead of the details. That seems to have paid off in the short term, with Obama virtually erasing Romney's lead on who can best handle the economy, according to a POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll released Monday.
"The president is focused on achieving what most Americans believe is the nation's top priority -- restoring economic security for the middle class," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "This isn't a small issue -- it will require a combination of reducing the deficit in a balanced way and investments that spur the creation of the jobs and products of the future here in America, and he's laid out a specific blueprint to do it."
Obama's lack of specificity makes sense politically as long as Romney's troubles persist through the debates -- and voters continue to view the race as a choice rather than as a referendum on Obama's competence, according to strategists in both parties.
But some veterans of incumbent reelection efforts say Obama needs to do more, regardless of Romney.
Obama "gave his speech at the convention and he had that line in there: I am the president," said Terry Nelson, George W. Bush's political director during the 2004 campaign, who said he was struck by the statement.
But "this is about a campaign [in which] you have to go out and convince people the last four years have been productive. ... What is your vision for the future of the country and what direction are you going to take us in? In this level, I think the president hasn't done a very good job of laying out what he would do. ... He hasn't really defined what he would do for the average American."
Before the president's post-convention surge, some Democrats were expressing a similar sentiment, urging him to reprise the mini-State of the Union speech Bill Clinton delivered during his 1996 convention address.
Instead, Obama offered a few broad commitments that will energize independents and young voters -- ones that will almost certainly be hard to pass through a Republican-controlled Congress, like cutting in half the pace of college tuition costs over the next decade and setting an ambitious new target for reducing reliance on foreign oil.
Schmidt, the recipient of Chicago's frontal assault four years ago, said the Obama team's embrace of a "less is more" strategy could give Romney a second chance -- especially if he has a solid showing in the upcoming debates.
"They're giving him a little space," he said.
But Democrats say Obama isn't letting up, pointing to a continued ad blitz in swing states that has soared past the $100 million mark and a ground operation that, according to operatives in both parties, dwarfs the Romney-Ryan field operations in key battlegrounds such as Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
Obama's Chicago operation attacked Romney relentlessly during the summer, and they are still on offense. On Monday, the campaign released a new ad in Ohio targeting the former Massachusetts governor's now-infamous claim that 47 percent of voters will support Obama because they don't pay taxes and crave handouts.
There's no reason to change what's working, Democratic strategist Karen Finney said. "If you are Obama and you are doing well in the polls and gaining traction, why do anything to endanger that heading into the debates?"
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