WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo met in February, Obama impressed the coach with his knowledge of the team, its injury woes and style of play. Turns out, the president might have been just been scouting for his bracket.
The president picked Michigan State to defeat Louisville, both fourth-seeded teams, in a segment called Barack-etology that was broadcast on ESPN this morning. It is the sixth time the president has filled out his bracket for the sports network.
It is the president’s most upset-heavy Final Four yet with regards to seeding, although few would call it risky (just ask Nate Silver).
“I know these are not imaginative picks, but I think they’re the right ones,” Obama said as he filled out his bracket.
Obama also picked two top-seeded teams, Florida and Arizona, to round out his Final Four.
The billionaire Warren Buffett is offering $1 billion to anyone who picks a perfect bracket, and while the odds suggest it is nearly impossible, speculation and possibility escape no one, including the president.
“I’m sure somebody would ask me to pay down more of the federal debt,” Obama said. “Michelle might want a few shoes.”
Conspicuously absent from the broadcast was any mention of the health care sign-up push. The administration has hoped to capitalize on the national excitement surrounding the tournament, rolling out a variety of March Madness-theme ads and programs in hopes of encouraging young people to sign up for coverage before the March 31 deadline.
The president’s bracket was mostly chalk in the later rounds, meaning he picked the top-seeded, or favored, team to win. He did feature a few upsets, including sixth-seeded North Carolina advancing to the Round of 16, and 12th-seeded North Dakota State upsetting Oklahoma in its first game.
The president also let some personal connections influence his picks. He finally showed some faith in Harvard, his law school alma mater, picking the Crimson to upset fifth-seeded Cincinnati in their first game. Obama picked Harvard to lose its first game in the previous two years. He also picked Duke to upset Michigan, giving a shout out to the Duke freshman Jabari Parker, who is from Chicago.
He kept those decisions mostly in check, however. When asked about picking Michigan State over Delaware for Vice President Joe Biden, Obama laughed off the suggestion.
“I’ll let Biden fill out his own bracket. If he wants to pick Delaware over Michigan State, I’ll let him do it,” the president said.
Other politicians have joined the annual bracket tradition. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who also plays pickup basketball, filled out his Tuesday. Last year, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky released brackets of their own.
While the president did not mention health care during the broadcast, he did let a little policy weave its way in. As the president was praising Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Parker, young freshman stars, Andy Katz of ESPN pressed him to comment on the one-and-done nature of some NCAA programs, where talented freshmen often leave school early for the NBA draft.
“I don’t begrudge young people, if they’ve got an opportunity to look after their family, to go ahead and get an NBA contract and then go back to school, hopefully, and get their degree,” Obama said. He added that he hoped the NCAA would make sure the “average kids” are still getting a good education, and that players would be able to keep their scholarship if they were injured.
It was not the first time Obama allowed a little policy into the typically apolitical arena of sports. He has traditionally given an interview on Super Bowl Sunday. He has weighed in on college football’s playoff system. And, in 2012, he announced his Final Four on his re-election campaign website and started the Obama Bracket Challenge, allowing supporters to fill out their own brackets and compete head-to-head with the president. He picked North Carolina to win it all, but the Tar Heels were eliminated in the Round of 8, and Obama lost the state in November.