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The Sports-Fan-in-Chief

How Barack Obama used his love of the game to further his endgame

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In 2012, when Barack Obama was preparing for his first debate with Mitt Romney, an aide named Ron Klain offered him a sports metaphor. Mr. President, Klain said, pretend you’re an all-offense, no-defense shooter — like the old Celtics guard Paul Westphal. Romney’s going to score a lot of points. You just have to outscore him.

Obama’s preparation for the debate was dismal, according to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book Double Down. Then–chief campaign strategist David Axelrod tried to reassure a colleague by saying, “Trust me, he’s a gamer.” But Axelrod was struck by Obama’s mood just before showtime. In 2008, Obama had said before a debate, “Just give me the ball!” Now, he said, “Let’s just get this over with and get out of here.”

Romney wound up clobbering Obama that night. When Obama faced his aides a few days later, he sounded like a losing quarterback: “It’s all on me.” Obama explained that his debating skills were as out of whack as Roy McAvoy’s golf game in Tin Cup. As Obama threw himself into preparation for the next debate, Klain offered another sports metaphor. This debate is like the end of the Rams-Titans Super Bowl, Klain said. The difference between election and defeat — between Obamacare and repeal — could be a single yard.

This was a typical sequence from the sports-mad presidency of Barack Obama. Every president campaigns with athletes, arranges them as props at his State of the Union, and uses sports as a lingua franca to speak to Joe Sixpack. Yet what Obama did was astounding. He filled nearly every minute of his administration with sports talk — using it as entertainment, metaphor, and, finally, as a political weapon. It was easy to miss that last aspect when Obama was tweeting about Jimmy Butler’s extension.

The White House has known extreme sports nerdery before. Asked by a reporter in 1972 to come up with his all-time Major League Baseball team, Richard Nixon supplied four teams: American and National League teams for both pre- and post-1945. Yet Obama ascended to a plane beyond what Nixon or any other president could dream of. He didn’t just go on ESPN to fill in an NCAA bracket (“Barack-etology”) every year. He filled in a women’s bracket, too.

Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman from Utah, once told me he thought Obama’s sports fandom was real and deep. (Conservatives had tweaked Obama for saying he watched his beloved White Sox at “Cominskey Field.”) But even Chaffetz couldn’t believe Obama was talking fluently about women’s basketball without glancing at talking points. “No way that was legit!”

Like no president before, save maybe Gerald Ford, Obama could be understood through the prism of his favorite sport, basketball. Michael Lewis followed Obama to a game for a 2012 Vanity Fair profile and found metaphors for the Obama presidency strewn all over the court. Four years after his ascension, Obama was no longer a transformational star — a max player — but a veteran facilitator like late-career Kevin Garnett. “He’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win,” Lewis wrote. And there was this, from one of Obama’s fellow players: “Unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.”

In public, Obama was often remote. In hoops, you could see a ruthless streak. Obama liked playing at the basketball court at FBI headquarters, because the court was slightly smaller and, thus, it was easier for an old guy to assert himself. The plan had been for Lewis and Obama to play on the same team, but Obama asked Lewis to sit until the team got a lead. “I was benched,” Lewis wrote.

Writing in The Undefeated, LZ Granderson argued that Obama’s love of basketball may have worked as a tractor beam to pull players like LeBron James toward liberal causes. NBA commissioner Adam Silver noted another effect: Because America had an African American president, a single basketball player committing a crime didn’t get the whole league dismissed as “thugs.”

All of this was orchestrated by someone who didn’t have even a significant high-school basketball career. During a 2008 campaign stop in Kuwait, Obama addressed troops on a court. Then he walked a basketball up to just outside the 3-point line. “I may not make the first one,” he said. “But I’ll make one eventually.” He let go of the ball, it went through the net, and Obama stuck both hands up in the air.

It’s one thing to mix sports talk with presidential stagecraft. Obama wanted more than that. He wanted to be our sports-talk-host-in-chief, weighing in on the burning issues of the day.

In 2013, Obama told The New Republic that if he had a son, “I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” He told Bill Simmons he couldn’t believe Roger Goodell made $44 million in one year. Obama was against the BCS, against stadium financing scams, against Donald Sterling (he called him “ignorant”), and thought college basketball’s shot clock should be 30, rather than 35, seconds.

None of these were exactly hot takes. Indeed, when he talked sports, Obama sounded like your typical, liberal-inclined sportswriter, furrowing his brow and (to use a slogan that got slapped on his foreign policy) “leading from behind.”

Sports was the chief metaphor of the Obama White House. During the 2014 midterms, when Democrats asked Obama to stay off the trail, an anonymous aide told The New York Times: “You’re in the Final Four, and you’re on the bench with a walking boot and you don’t get to play.”

Obama, in turn, used the language of sports to describe himself. He was Aaron Rodgers, he told Simmons, his eyes always trained downfield despite a messy pocket. Teasing out his foreign policy at a stop in the Philippines, Obama said: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

In 2014, Obama scoffed at the remnants of Al Qaeda that had outlived Osama bin Laden: “[I]f a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” The metaphor would become notorious when another terrorist group, ISIS, claimed tracts in Syria and Iraq.

Yet for every time he tried way too hard, Obama unlocked moments of pure joy only accessible to a genuine fan. He was the first president to establish full diplomatic relations with the nation’s athletes, and the shit talk echoed back and forth between the locker room and the White House.

Obama told soccer player Tim Howard to shave his beard. When the Miami Heat visited the White House, he knew the right, slashing joke to make about Mario Chalmers. (LeBron James put his head on Dwyane Wade’s shoulder as he dissolved in laughter.) Steph Curry said on Ellen that Obama talked trash while playing golf: “I’ll hit a shot out of bounds, and he’ll just look like, ‘Yeah, that’s not a good shot. I’m going to need you to do better next time.’”

Two years ago, Michael Jordan dismissed Obama as a “shitty” golfer. Obama fired back: “There is no doubt that Michael is a better golfer than I am. Of course, if I was playing twice a day for the last 15 years, then that might not be the case.”

Obama added, “He might want to spend more time thinking about the Bobcats.”

Here you can almost hear Obama’s internal editor stepping in — the sports-talk-host-in-chief has to be exact! “Or the Hornets,” he added.

Charming anecdotes like these didn’t walk from the White House to the front page of the newspaper. The endless reminders of Obama’s sports fandom made you realize that America wasn’t just eavesdropping on a man’s private passion. If Obama was more sports-mad than any president, he also used sports more ruthlessly. He made it into cold-blooded political tool.

When I point this out to Obamaites, they often respond, “Oh, I think he really loves sports.” Well, sure. And Bill Clinton really loved the saxophone. But when Clinton played the sax on Arsenio, it morphed from a hobby into a campaign prop. This is exactly what happened with Obama and sports.

Early in Obama’s presidency, stories leaked to reporters that painted a picture of a gonzo fan who somehow coped with being leader of the free world. In a 2008 meeting, Obama was “sending urgent-looking BlackBerry messages back and forth” with Robert Gibbs, his first press secretary. What was so important? Obama, The New York Times reported, was chatting with Gibbs about his fantasy team. In Double Down, Halperin and Heilemann noted that Obama’s Treaty Room had a computer, printer, and “a TV for monitoring ESPN.” (Not CNN?)

My favorite Obama set piece was staged on May 20, 2012, when Obama left a dinner with NATO allies to go to Chicago’s Soldier Field. There, he picked up a football and cocked it in his left arm, while the perfectly positioned White House photographer, Pete Souza, snapped away. On the White House website, the picture was selected as a “photo of the day.” Why? Obama was running for re-election. Throwing a football made him look really cool.

It was a perfectly manipulative use of sports fandom. It’s not unlike the times Michael Dukakis, during his 1988 campaign, grabbed a baseball glove and played catch on a tarmac in front of reporters. As Joan Didion wrote in The New York Review of Books:

There was more than a little willingness to accept spin — there was with Obama, too.

Of course, Obama had good reasons to lay it on thick. He spent his presidency being labeled The Other — a madrassa-educated, Kenyan-born, America-(god)damning socialist mole who would shred the Constitution. I once wrote that when Obama talks sports, he shows America his birth certificate. I never figured that the man demanding the birth certificate would replace him.

And it should be said that Obama’s sports campaign was wildly successful. He forged a bond with Rust Belt voters that Hillary Clinton couldn’t in 2016; for such a remote figure, Obama came off as more approachable than either of his opponents. Other than convincing Americans he could be a transformative, cross-partisan force, convincing them he loved sports as madly and deeply as they did was Obama’s greatest act of salesmanship. He showed more gusto talking sports than he ever did defending Obamacare.

Outside of midwifing a new wave of athlete political awareness, Obama’s sports talk leaves no real intellectual legacy. But it shows how genuine passion and political theater can converge until they become the same thing. Back in 2012, when Obama recommitted himself to debate prep after his disastrous first encounter with Romney, David Axelrod was struck. Here was a lifelong underdog ready to pull off another upset. Obama was shooting like Paul Westphal; he was holding the goal line like the Rams. As Axelrod later noted, it was just like the ending of Hoosiers.