Like the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey or baseball’s ceremonial first pitch, the First Bracket is now a Washington institution. So it was inevitable that it would become politicized.
This year the criticism started even before President Barack Obama announced his picks for the men’s college basketball tournament: Congress is still waiting for the president to deliver his budget, Republicans said, yet he has the time not only to handicap 68 National Collegiate Athletic Association teams, but also to tape a segment with ESPN breaking down his selections?
If the act of filling out a bracket is inherently political, it’s nothing compared with the completed bracket itself. Our brackets are ourselves. They are less a quiz of basketball knowledge—no matter how much college hoops you watched this year, you are guaranteed to lose your office pool to someone who thinks a “Diaper Dandy” is a maternity gift—than a fill-in-the-blank Rorschach test.
Are you an idealist, the sort who bets big on your alma mater or your hometown team? Or a nostalgist, doubling down on a resurgent powerhouse from your youth? (I’m looking at you, La Salle.) Or maybe you’re a big-risk, big-reward guy, the type who looks at Southern University (16) versus Gonzaga (1) and thinks, no-brainer.
Historically, Obama has done none of these things. He has filled out his bracket a lot like he has governed: dispassionately, and with a clear aversion to risk.
Obama’s first public bracket, released during the 2008 campaign, was a model of caution. (Not unlike his vice presidential pick a few months later.) It included not a single 12th-seed upset of a fifth seed. His Final Four were UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Pittsburgh: three No. 1s and one No. 4. That was not Change You Can Believe In. It was a statement of support for the status quo.
The trend continued through Obama’s first term. In 2010—after opting not to offer a second stimulus package, dropping the idea of a government-run health-insurance plan and deciding to keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open after all—the president picked the country’s top two teams, Kansas and Kentucky, to square off in the championship. The following year, his Final Four consisted of all No. 1 seeds.
Obama’s brackets might be so bland in part because he’s really more of a professional sports fan. President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, had his Razorbacks. But Obama—who grew up in Hawaii, attended college in and New York, and spent most of his adult life in Chicago—doesn’t seem to have any strong college-sports allegiances. (For what it’s worth, the University of Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2002.)
Ultimately, Obama’s NCAA brackets reveal a pragmatist. A couple of years ago, the president’s Elite Eight featured only one surprise—the favorite of Washington’s Elite, Georgetown. In the midst of last year’s re-election campaign, as political pundits never tired of pointing out, three of Obama’s Final Four picks were from swing states.
Obama’s prudence has served him well as a politician. It has been less successful as a bracket strategy: He hasn’t picked a winner since North Carolina in 2009.
So going into this year’s tournament, with his last presidential campaign behind him, there was hope that Obama would free his inner Barack-etologist. Forget those tiresome debates about whether Obama will use his second term to push hard for immigration reform or to strike a “grand bargain” on the federal budget. We might finally get to know the answers to more important questions, such as what the president really thinks about Duke.
Now that Obama has made his bracket public, we know those hopes were misplaced, even misguided. After all, he’s still a politician, and he has the congressional midterms—not to mention his legacy—to worry about. What’s more, he’s still Obama.
“I’m going with Louisville,” he said on ESPN, referring to one of the two teams—both No. 1 seeds—that he picked for the championship game. “I know it’s not a surprise pick.” (NCAA bashers might at least take some pleasure in his tacit endorsement of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.)
One of Obama’s alma maters—14th-seeded Harvard, where he went to law school—plays the University of New Mexico, a No. 3 seed, in the first round. Here was a chance for him to follow his heart, as well as demonstrate that he’s not afraid to gamble on an underdog. Of course, the downside is that he would risk being seen as an elitist. Obama took New Mexico.
Then there’s the great Duke dilemma. For the prudent politician, no college basketball program is more vexing. It is both America’s team and the team America loves to hate. (If you really want to go deep into the weeds here, two political scientists have gone so far as to equate anti-Dukism with anti-Americanism.) For Obama, Duke has been especially troublesome, from both a basketball and a political perspective. This year Obama played it down the middle, choosing the second-seeded Blue Devils to advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Louisville.
Obama has Indiana as this year’s champion, which makes perfect sense. Nate Silver, as usual, has done the math and says the Hoosiers have a very good shot at winning the tournament. And it certainly doesn’t hurt for a president who has promised to make the U.S. a magnet for manufacturing jobs to throw himself behind a rust-belt state with 8.6 percent unemployment.
All of which is to say: If this year’s First Bracket is an indication of how much risk Obama is prepared to take in his second term, no one should expect peace in the Middle East any time soon.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.
More stories from Bloomberg View: