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 California 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.