In picking Kansas to beat Kentucky, President Obama's NCAA tournament bracket shows how he applies his political pragmatism to predicting winners in college basketball's championship playoff. In his first bracket as president last year, Obama outperformed 80 percent of the country; if you modeled your bracket after the president's, you would have beaten four out of five folks in your office pool. Picking the consensus favorite appears to be a model Obama is comfortable with.
How will he do this year? Let's dig into Obama’s 2010 predictions, evaluating them for pragmatism versus any "audacity of upsets," appealing to any seemingly special interests versus reaching reconciliation. In tune with his recent tack to populism, we'll look at how the president compare with the rest of the nation, using ESPN’s National Bracket, an aggregation of all of their users' tournament picks.
The president doesn't just like Kansas because of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. He has the Jayhawks cruising into the Final Four.
Audacity of Upsets: Obama predicted just one in the first round (10-seed Georgia Tech over 7-seed Oklahoma State) and his one upset heading into the Sweet 16 barely qualifies: No. 5 Michigan State over No. 4 Maryland; Obama noted the Spartans' "great coach" as an advantage over Maryland's star, Greivis Vasquez.
Reconciliation: As you can see on the president’s hand-written bracket, he went back and forth on Georgia Tech vs. Oklahoma State. How did Obama come to pick Georgetown over Ohio State for a spot in the Elite Eight? The president had a front-row seat for the Hoyas' demolition of Duke a month ago, and that undoubtedly stuck in his mind. (Earlier this week, Obama name-checked Buckeyes star Evan Turner in front of an Ohio crowd, perhaps to mitigate the snub.)
National (Bracket) Approval Rating: High. Obama mirrored the aggregate picks of the country nearly precisely, including Michigan State beating Maryland. In the only two games where he deviated—Georgia Tech and Georgetown—the national vote was as close as you find on the bracket.
The president risked the wrath of upstate New York by denying top-seeded Syracuse a place in the Final Four. Instead, the president earned more credit in the state of Kansas by taking 2-seed Kansas State.
Audacity of Upsets: As with the Midwest, Obama largely stayed away from predicting first-round upsets. He may have been motivated by his experience a year ago, when his first-round picks largely flopped. He did select 13-seed Murray State over 4-seed Vanderbilt. Obama also avoided a popular upset pick of 12-seed UTEP over 5-seed Butler, instead taking Butler into the Sweet 16.
Reconciliation: On his hand-written bracket, the president crossed out his original pick of 10-seed Florida and replaced it with 7-seed Brigham Young. On the one hand, this gives plenty of fodder to Marco Rubio for his next campaign stop; on the other hand, it defuses BYU graduate Mitt Romney, a potential opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign.
National (Bracket) Approval Rating: Moderate. A plurality of fans picked Vanderbilt over Murray State, with Vandy moving on to the Sweet 16 in a win over Butler, but this was the closest differential of any second-round game. There is a wider gap in the regional final: fans have Syracuse beating Kansas State by a 2-to-1 margin, numbers that suggest Obama might be out of step with the center.
Another region where Obama ultimately selects the top-seeded team—Kentucky—to advance to the Final Four. But the region is not without its intrigue: Obama writes off Philadelphia and South Carolina, while risking the alienation of a state in the Far West he most recently flipped blue.
Audacity of Upsets: A year after (correctly) picking Cornell to lose in the 1st round, Obama gives the 12-seed Big Red an upset win over 5-seed Temple, which won't make Pennsylvania governor and unabashed Philly sports fan Ed Rendell happy. He also picks 10-seed Missouri over 7-seed Clemson—take that, Jim DeMint.
Reconciliation: Fans knew the president was in the tank for the Wildcats when he called to congratulate UK coach John Calipari on a million-dollar fundraising effort for Haiti relief. Kentucky went on to lose their first game of the season that night. Obama picking Kentucky to win the region is a nice giveback. Jim Bunning undoubtedly approves, and any time you can get Bunning to agree with Obama on anything would have to be considered a political masterstroke.
National (Bracket) Approval Rating: Solid. Obama matches the nation on six of eight first-round games. Beyond Cornell, Obama's Mizzou-over-Clemson is among the most popular upset picks by the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Obama picks 6-seed Marquette over 3-seed New Mexico, one of only three second-round pairings with less than a 20 percentage-point gap between teams.
Things get personal. Obama's "body man," Reggie Love, was a role player for Duke on the school's national-title team earlier this decade. How far will the president go to support his aide? A year ago, Obama picked Duke to beat Villanova in the East regional semifinals; the Devils were drummed out of the tournament by 20 points.
Audacity of Upsets: The president joins much of the rest of the country in believing that Purdue was "overseeded" as a 4; he picks 13-seed Siena to pull the upset. (Obama showcases his even keel by not taking the Saints out of the first weekend, eliminated by Texas A&M.) Obama likes another "Saint": St. Mary's, the region's 10-seed, which he sees upending 7-seed Richmond. Otherwise, Obama sees the top 3 seeds—Duke, Villanova, and Baylor—plus 5-seed Texas A&M in the regionals.
Reconciliation: In a regional final between Duke and Villanova, Obama remembers last year's result and advances 'Nova past Duke and into the Final Four. What an internal struggle seems to have played out, through his hand-written bracket, where he crossed out his proposed winner no less than twice: First he picked Villanova, then Duke, then back to Villanova.
National (Bracket) Approval Rating: High. The Duke-Villanova game is the most contentious among fans of any regional final, indicating that many fans shared Obama's view. His four regional semifinalists match the nation's. And even his biggest upset—Siena over Purdue—is the 4-versus-13 game that most people think can yield an upset.
The plurality of fans in ESPN's national bracket advance all four top-seeded regional teams to the Final Four. Obama deserves credit for taking a risk. It is worth noting that he missed three out of four Final Four teams in 2009, while still picking the overall champion.
With the Duke-Villanova struggle decided, Obama confidently put through to the national-title game Kansas and Kentucky—clearly the top two teams of the tournament field. From there, his bracket feels like a no-brainer: Kansas as the national champion.
If 2009 is any guide, Obama's bracket success is not unlike his political success: he seems to start slow, even stumbling, then closes fast and decisively. In the tournament's early rounds, that may or may not be good news for Murray State or Siena, Marquette or Butler. But it foreshadows championship moments ahead for Kansas.
One last point: Kudos to the president for filling out a women's NCAA Tournament bracket, which will be revealed Friday. He did not fill one out last year.