Barack Obama has crafted an image as an unconventional candidate, a change agent and a post-partisan politician who represents a dramatic break from the status quo. But since securing the Democratic presidential nomination, when confronted with a series of thorny issues the Illinois senator has pursued a conspicuously conventional path, one that falls far short of his soaring rhetoric.
Faced with tough choices on fronts ranging from public financing and town hall meetings to warrantless surveillance and the Second Amendment, Obama passed up opportunities to take bold stands and make striking departures from customary politics. Instead, he has followed a familiar tack, straddling controversial issues and choosing politically advantageous routes that will ensure his campaign a cash edge and minimize damaging blowback on several highly sensitive issues.
Obama's embrace of political pragmatism came into sharp focus Thursday with the landmark Supreme Court ruling that overturned Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban and declared for the first time an individual right to possess a gun.
As an Illinois state legislator, Obama generally supported tighter restrictions on firearms and served on the board of a foundation that funded legal scholarship advancing the theory that the Second Amendment does not protect individual gun owners' rights, as well as 14 separate groups that ultimately signed an amicus brief supporting the D.C. ban.
Though he had tried to avoid taking a firm stand on either the ban or the case, an unnamed staffer last year told The Chicago Tribune that "Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional."
On Thursday, though, the Obama campaign distanced itself from that record, which would have considerable downside risk for a presidential candidate running on a 50-state landscape.
Obama's top spokesman, Bill Burton, said that the statement to the Chicago Tribune "was not worded as well as it could have been" and that Obama believes that generally the Constitution "doesn't prevent local and state governments from enacting their own gun laws."
After the high court ruling, Obama said in a statement he has "always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures."
The Court "has now endorsed that view," Obama asserted, citing a passage in Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion which begins: "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."
Shortly before the court decision, Obama sought to sidestep another political landmine over controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation. His support for a government surveillance bill that offers retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies - a bill that he vowed last year to filibuster - angered liberal Internet activists who felt betrayed by what they saw as a politically expedient move designed to inoculate himself against GOP charges that he's weak on national security.
But Obama explained it to reporters Wednesday by pointing out that the bill has changed from when he made his filibuster pledge, saying the latest version allayed several concerns, including providing closer oversight of the government surveillance program. Yet it still effectively offers retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that aided the administration's warrantless wiretapping efforts, a key point Obama said he would oppose. He said Wednesday that he was satisfied with the requirement for an inspector general's review.
He is expected to vote for an amendment stripping out the immunity provision, but even if the effort fails, Obama likely would back the underlying bill.
"It is not all that I would want," Obama said in a statement last week "But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence-collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay," he said.
The calculations that mark Obama's delicate approach toward the FISA bill and the Supreme Court gun ruling come on the heels of his decision last week to reverse a pledge he made last year to participate in the public financing system in the general election if his Republican opponent agreed to do the same-a move that made him the first modern presidential candidate to decline public financing in a general election.
McCain has agreed to participate in the system, which provides candidates $84 million in taxpayer cash, but limits their campaign spending to that amount. Obama, whose historic fundraising ability was unknown when he made the pledge, is expected to easily surpass that tally.
Though he did not frame it as such, Obama's reversal was widely viewed by campaign finance reformers and editorial boards as a strategic choice to put his likely huge campaign cash advantage over his commitment to government reform.
They've been mostly receptive to Obama's forays on campaign finance issues, but many reformers dismissed his explanation for the shift: that his massive base of small online donors constitute a "parallel public financing," and that he needed to exit the program to defend himself from the independent spending of 527 groups.
Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing program followed his campaign's earlier derailment of another bold campaign proposal he had at one time supported: McCain's call for a series of town halls featuring the two candidates.
After declaring last month he would meet McCain "anywhere, anytime" to debate foreign policy-a risky proposition that had the potential to work to McCain's political advantage--Obama backtracked and would only offer one town hall and one extra debate in response to McCain's suggestion of 10.
In explaining the offer to the McCain campaign, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a statement that Obama's offer "would have been the most of any Presidential campaign in the modern era - offering a broad range of formats - and representing a historic commitment to openness and transparency."
He charged McCain's campaign "would rather contrive a political issue than foster a genuine discussion about the future of our country."
Carrie Budoff Brown and David Paul Kuhn contributed to this report.