As I watched President Obama select his NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen bracket picks with ESPN's Andy Katz, I started to wonder, "Is he picking all favorites?" I looked it up and it turned out that, with the exception of two upsets, he was. Sure, there was #4 Wisconsin over #5 Kansas State, and #5 Arizona over #4 Texas, but certainly no 11 seed over a 3 seed or 10 over a 2. And all the teams in his Final Four choices were number one seeds. His selections were made with great confidence and knowledge, but he could have made long-shot predictions with equal authority, given the incredible talents on lower-ranked teams such as Richmond's Justin Harper and Butler's Shelvin Mack. I wondered, what makes Obama so much more comfortable on the low-risk path? Is this a metaphor for his approach to governing?
When you look at presidents and presidential actions accorded greatness by most historians, you see a high valuation of risk and boldness. Abraham Lincoln pressed the Union cause relentlessly for years. He resisted calls from Northern Democratic leaders to seek a compromise settlement with the South to end the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt enacted New Deal legislation having no idea whether it would work and knowing he would be widely condemned by political adversaries. Lyndon Johnson seized the opportunity afforded by the 1964 election to press landmark Great Society measures and championed civil rights laws with full knowledge of the likely political consequences for his party.
Of course, boldness is in the eye of the beholder. It's a measure of how far right the center of the Republican Party has moved that Obama's restrained stimulus spending and tax cut bill; a clean energy bill that chose market mechanisms over top-down regulation; and a health care bill that bore the imprint of Richard Nixon, Howard Baker and Bob Dole, were portrayed as the products of out-of-control government activism. Meanwhile, critics like Paul Krugman lamented Obama's ambitions as far too small, and blamed his unrealistic desire for bipartisan approval as the culprit.
We might sum this all up by saying that the path of least resistance can lead to a whole lot of resistance from all sides, and to appreciation by few. Or to VCU and Marquette and the astro turf Tea Party trying to screw up your bracket by knowing the secret that people are suckers for a tough-talking underdog believing the impossible can happen.
Wait, that reminds me of somebody's campaign... perhaps Obama should keep his scrappier days in mind while fighting for his budget bottom lines. High risk, but if the government shuts down and voters blame Republicans, high reward for Democrats. And maybe a renewed belief that Obama can do "big things."
Don't forget, back in 2009 he had the audacity to put a 2 seed (Memphis) in the Final Four.
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