It's often said that the way a candidate runs his campaign gives insight into the way he'll run the government, but unfortunately it usually isn't true. A campaign has a few similarities to a government, but not many; likewise, while there are similarities between running for president and being president (lots of speeches, for instance), most of the really important things couldn't be more different.
As the presidential election nears its end—a vote of tremendous consequence preceded by a campaign of unusual triviality—is there anything left to learn about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? Despite the fervid hopes of those on the extreme right that there is some secret revelation waiting to be unearthed about Obama, we know most of what we need to know about his potential second term just by taking stock of his first. We know that domestically, where he needs Congress's cooperation he'll pursue the policies his party supports, just as Mitt Romney will. In foreign policy and national security, we know that he'll continue to distress the progressives who care to think about it, with a continuation of the drone war in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a vision of presidential power that is little different from George W. Bush's. The bulk of his policy initiatives will merely continue what he has already done; whether you think that's a good idea depends almost entirely on your party affiliation.
If you had particular foresight, you might have seen in Obama's pre-presidential political career some of the characteristics that produced his greatest successes as president. In particular, he combines a carefulness and methodical planning with extremely bold action when he believes circumstances have produced the perfect moment. The most obvious example was his decision to run for president in the first place. Let's not forget that at the time, nearly every sage observer said Obama was being presumptuous and premature. When his run began he was a mere two years removed from the Illinois state senate, an electrifying presence but hardly possessed of the seasoning that a president needed. But Obama saw that the end of the Bush years provided an opportunity he might not see again, when the thirst for someone new and different made the election of the nation's first black president a possibility, even one who had only occupied high office for only a brief time.
There have been plenty of times when Obama could have gone farther than he did, or would have done better forcing a confrontation instead of settling for conciliation. But that boldness could be seen at most of the key moments of his first term: ignoring advisers like Rahm Emanuel who counseled abandoning the Affordable Care Act when it was in jeopardy; bailing out the auto industry when many thought it was a dying elephant; and yes, ordering the operation that killed Osama bin Laden despite all the risks it entailed.
Like Obama, Mitt Romney is known as a careful planner. But unlike Obama, Romney has shown an aversion to risk-taking that is nearly absolute. That isn't always a bad thing; though many of Obama's risks have worked out well, there's nothing inherently wrong with caution. But Romney's caution is extreme, so much so that it's impossible to think of a single risk he's ever taken—political, personal, or otherwise. When he was working at Bain & Co. and the firm's founder asked him to run the new venture of Bain Capital, Romney negotiated a deal that guaranteed him his old job back if the private equity firm failed. When he went to run the Olympics in Salt Lake, he negotiated a similar deal with Bain Capital. And the private equity business that he helped pioneer is all about risking borrowed money and making sure to charge huge management fees, so even if the company you buy goes under, you still wind up making a profit.
In politics, Romney's aversion to risk is all the explanation you need for his reinventions: When the next electorate to be wooed didn't look favorably inclined to the last iteration of Mitt, rather than risk being rejected because of what he stood for, he sought out the path of least ideological resistance. The problem is that if he becomes president, Romney will face decisions in which there is no safe choice. I don't doubt that if a natural disaster hit, Romney could effectively manage the government's response, since it would be an administrative challenge with clear goals. But what about some international crisis where all paths pose tremendous risks? What if, say, fundamentalists staged a coup in Pakistan? Can anyone say how Romney would respond, or even what in his character or experience might give us some idea? He might handle such crises brilliantly or disastrously. We have no idea.
Nevertheless, for all Romney's ideological revisions and reimaginings, we can be fairly sure about many of the things he'll do. Just like Obama, he'll be a creature of his party. He'll stock the executive branch with the same Republicans who would arrive with any GOP president. He can't enact his tax cut plan as he has presented it during this campaign, but he'll attempt to cut income tax rates in some fashion, and probably try to cut capital gains and inheritance taxes to boot. He'll appoint judges (and Supreme Court justices if he gets the chance) who are hostile to reproductive rights and friendly to corporate power and privilege. When he promises to cut regulations that limit business's ability to pollute or harm consumers, he means it. While he may not achieve his utterly arbitrary goal of increasing military spending to 4 percent of GDP, he'll certainly try to increase it. He might get cold feet on voucherizing Medicare, but he'll be happy to go after Medicaid; doing so is less risky since the latter's constituency is poor people.
Finally, if we're trying to imagine the next four years, it's as important to ask what each candidate doesn't care about as what he does care about. A president won't take a political risk or invest in a long-term effort to accomplish a goal he can live without achieving. Obama wouldn't have undertaken the monumental struggle required to pass the Affordable Care Act if he didn't care about the goal of health care reform. On the other hand, he clearly doesn't care much about the proliferation of guns.
As for Mitt Romney, it's so hard to determine what he cares about that it's equally difficult to say what he doesn't care about. His campaign recently informed reporters that he will be giving no more interviews between now and Election Day, lest he be subjected to the risk of an uncomfortable question or another cringe-inducing gaffe. So whatever voters don't know about Mitt Romney they aren't going to find out unless he becomes president.