Barack Obama hates the underdog

Why his addiction to chalk in his NCAA tournament bracket is a fitting microcosm of his presidency

Topics: War Room,

Barack Obama hates the underdog (Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Salon)

For the fifth straight year, Barack Obama has released his NCAA basketball tournament bracket. And for the fifth straight year, he has the same message for all of the would-be giant killers in the field: No, you can’t.

Obama’s picks are, as usual, devoid of the sort of seismic upsets and unlikely runs by low-profile teams that give the tournament its flavor. His Final Four is composed of two No. 1 seeds, North Carolina and Kentucky, and a pair of No. 2′s, Ohio State and Missouri. His champion, for the third time in five years, is UNC.

The lowest-seed he has reaching the Elite Eight is No. 3 Baylor, a talent-rich power conference team that didn’t quite play up to its potential this year. The closest he comes to predicting a Cinderella run is his choice of North Carolina State, an 11-seed from the mighty ACC, to knock off Steve Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs and 3rd-seeded Georgetown before falling (to Kansas) in the Sweet 16. Beyond that, the only other upset of note that he’s calling for is 12th-seeded VCU to beat No. 5 Wichita State in the first round — not exactly a bold pick when you consider that VCU was a Final Four team last year and Wichita hails from the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference.

You might expect that the man who wrote “The Audacity of Hope” and whose own four-year rise from the Illinois state Legislature to the White House stands as one of the most impressive political Cinderella stories of all-time would have a little more faith in the underdog, but this is what happens every year. Obama’s debut bracket in 2008 picked three No. 1 seeds for the Final Four. He also picked three in 2009, two in 2010 and three in 2011. The lowest seed he’s ever placed in the Final Four was No. 4 Pittsburgh in ’08, a decision that reeked of politics, since Obama was trying to win the Pennsylvania primary at the time.

In a way, Obama’s brackets are a fitting microcosm of his presidency. We were initially conditioned to expect boldness, imagination and outside-the-box thinking, but by now we’ve realized that it’s bland, utterly rational pragmatism that really drives him (with a dose of political calculation thrown in). His selections typify the “Favorites Bracket” that the New York Times’ Mike Tanier describes in his amusing typology of brackets.



Of course, there’s something to be said for cool, analytical judgment, in both bracketology and politics. As uninspiring as it is, Obama’s addiction to chalk helped him correctly pick three of the Final Four teams in ’08, and the national champion (UNC) in ’09. The old horse track saying is that you’ll go broke playing favorites, but it’s also true that they win a lot. In the same spirit, engaging in some very uninspiring compromising and deal-making has helped Obama rack up some significant achievements as president, like healthcare.

But then there are moments like last spring, when teams seeded No. 11, No. 8, No. 4 and No. 3 all made the Final Four — the highest total seed combination in the event’s history and an incurable optimist’s dream. But Obama hadn’t believed in any of them; his bracket had all four top seeds making it instead. The story of his bracket history is the story of his presidency: There have been successes and there have been failures — but not for the reasons we would have expected when we first met him all those years ago.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>