The president's picks are in. Barack Obama broke down the NCAA men's basketball field of 64 in the White House map room yesterday afternoon, picking the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to win it all and flexing his knowledge of conference strengths and the undeniable momentum of the Syracuse Orange.
Obama clearly knows his stuff. He's played pickup ball in Chicago for a number of years (with fellow Illinois politicos David Axelrod, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoilias), and he scrimmaged last summer with the UNC squad. His no-looks are presidential; his jumper, commanderly. Sports Illustrated has praised his game.
So while the nation waits to see what kind of leader Obama will be, the answer is right before us. You can tell a lot about a president by looking at his bracket.
For starters, Obama is conservative. Maybe not slash spending and overturn Roe v. Wade conservative, but cautious and risk averse. His UNC pick is shared by many, and his Final Four are Louisville, Pittsburgh, UNC, and Memphis--all 1 seeds aside from Memphis, whom many have predicted to beat Connecticut. He's picked a total of three upsets in the first round (not counting his two predictions for 9 seeds to beat 8 seeds), his most notable being a win for VCU (11) over UCLA (6) in the East region and another for Temple (11) over Arizona State (6) in the South. Aside from a Maryland (10) victory over Cal (7) in the West--a pick many are making--that's it. The only thing risky about these picks is that they may cost Obama some support in California in 2012--and he's probably not worried about that.
It's no wonder the president siding with the received wisdom, playing it relatively safe: after all, we're in a crisis, and this is no time to take chances. If Obama were to pick, say, 13-seeded Cleveland State to beat 4-seeded Wake Forest, and underdog Akron to make the Elite Eight (saying, perhaps, "I think the Mid America Conference is due to make a splash), the stock market might dip 200 points tomorrow.
And no one wants that.
So when it comes to bracketology, Obama has shown a steady hand and delivered on his campaign promises of pragmatism. (It takes a true ideologue to put a 5 seed in the championship game; pragmatic leaders pick the favorites.)
His one bold statement is picking Syracuse to advance past Oklahoma in the South region. The Orange are coming off a strong performance in the Big East tournament, which included a six-overtime victory over the favored Huskies of Connecticut, and Obama has them carrying that forward into a Sweet Sixteen victory over the Sooners. It takes a politician to recognize Uncle Mo.
Obama's own swagger has been duly noted in the press, and 'Cuse could be a team after his own heart. Two years into his first and only Senate term, with the political advice of his own Jim Boeheim figure--the similarly bald and comparably expert Axelrod--Obama started his miracle run when he rose to become the second-best-funded candidate in the Democratic primary, then eventually defeated Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the equivalent of a six-OT showdown in Iowa.
The Syracuse pick may also be an overture to the voters of New York's 20th congressional district, who will vote March 31 in the nation's only active congressional race: the special election between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco to fill the seat of newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D). The district is conservative, as Democratic-held districts go, and Tedisco led by four percentage points in the latest poll. Any favor Obama can curry with Syracuse's upstate fans will likely be welcomed by the Murphy camp.
Picking Florida State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen is Obama's next most controversial move. Given that whoever occupies that slot will play heavily favored Pittsburgh, it's not a choice many bracket-fillers will think too hard about, but it perhaps shows Obama to be a believer in the theory that the best player on the court determines who wins in tournament games: FSU's Toney Douglas, runner up for ACC player of the year, by that logic, could be a driving force in March--and possibly proof of Obama's belief in the transcendence of individual play. So much for socialism.
And forget about seeing Obama's bracket as a sop to red states: only five his Sweet Sixteen hail from states carried by John McCain in the 2008 election, though his Final Four are split evenly.
His championship pick of UNC could be seen as a thank-you to North Carolina voters and a consolidation of the Democratic power base there. Obama won N.C. 50 to 49 percent in November, while Democrat Kay Hagan bested former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R); formerly red North Carolina could be a major strategic gain for Democrats in years to come, and picking Carolina for the second year in a row certainly isn't a bad move. After Obama balled with all-world Tyler Hansbrough and the Heels over the summer, some Carolinians predicted it could be a game changer for the election, so perhaps this bracket favoritism goes beyond basketball savvy.
The UNC pick might also give us a window into military policy. Obama likes the offensive-minded Tar Heels to beat the defensive-minded Cardinals. It's clear from his bracket that Obama prefers ambitious offense to a full-court press that gambles for steals, as Louisville is wont to do. So, naturally, one assumes he'll favor shock and awe in Afghanistan but not expanded missile defense in Europe and around the globe.
Above all, the picks show our commander in chief to be knowledgeable, if a bit of a traditionalist. Sure, his Syracuse and FSU nods look adventurous, but they stand alone. And, since his party can use the votes in upstate New York and Florida's panhandle, it might be riskier for Obama not to pick them.
Ben Bradley contributed to this post.