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. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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