When It Comes to Brackets, Barack Obama Is a Diehard Conservative

But is President's Obama's tendency to go all-chalk with his picks actually a viable strategy?

March 19, 2021 6:25 am
President Obama with his March Madness bracket
President Obama has released his official bracket every year since 2009.

Months after being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in January of 2009, Barack Obama had some tough decisions to make. So he headed to the White House Map Room with a whiteboard and an easel that he erected a few feet away from a situation map from World War II and went to work. Obama, for the first time as president, had to fill out his official March Madness bracket.

Unlike his politics, President Obama went fairly conservative with his picks, selecting Louisville (1 seed), Memphis (2), Pittsburgh (1) and North Carolina (1) to advance to the Final Four. After some thought, the president elected the Tar Heels as national champs. He was right about UNC winning it all, but the rest of his Final Four was incorrect: Michigan State (2), UConn (1) and Villanova (3) were the other three teams that made it in ’09.

Since then, President Obama has made it an annual tradition to release his official picks for the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, and this year is no different. In 2021, President Obama projects Gonzaga, Michigan, Baylor and Illinois in the Final Four on the men’s side, with the Bulldogs beating the Fighting Illini in the national championship game. For the women, he has Stanford, Maryland, Baylor and N.C. State in the Final Four with Baylor defeating Stanford in the title game.

Despite having some upsets early in the tournament, like No. 12 seed UC Santa Barbara knocking off No. 5 Creighton and No. 13 seed Ohio beating No. 4 Virginia in the first round, President Obama’s Final Four is straight chalk beyond that: all four of his Final Four picks are No. 1 seeds.

Though it is rare for President Obama to go with all No. 1s like he did this year, it turns out it is pretty common for him to lean on the top seeds in the tourney, dating back to 2009, when he picked three No. 1 seeds for his Final Four.

In his past five brackets (2015-19), President Obama has picked 11 No. 1 seeds, seven No. 2 seeds and a pair of No. 3 seeds to make the Final Four. (Interestingly, he has only not picked UNC once.) Of those 20 total Final Four selections, he has gotten five correct and accurately predicted the national champion just once — UNC in 2017 (of course).

By never selecting a team lower than a No. 3 seed in his past five brackets, President Obama has had a 25% success rate in his predictions, but has missed out on teams like Michigan State (7) in 2015, Syracuse (10) in 2016, South Carolina (7) in 2017, Loyola-Chicago (11) in 2018 and Auburn (5) in 2019.

While clearly viable, President Obama’s conservative strategy of going chalk with his late-round selections may not be the best, as history shows that only 51.4% of top seeds reach the Final Four, according to sports wagering experts Chris Altruda of PennBets.com.

“I think 1-for-5 for predicting a national champion is on par with the average fan, but 5-for-20 on Final Four teams might be a little below par,” Altruda tells InsideHook. “One issue with picking chalk is you get burned and/or rewarded like everyone else — Virginia in 2018 and 2019 is proof of that. Regardless of what seed a team may be, picking them to win six consecutive games over a period of three weekends based on who you think they will play is hard enough. Anything can happen in March. And some years, anything winds up being a lot of things when it comes to a bracket.”

That said, Altruda doesn’t have a big problem with President Obama’s all-chalk Final Four in 2021.

“This year, it’s not the worst strategy given how Gonzaga and Baylor have separated themselves,” he says. “Additionally, Illinois appears to have a decent path to the regional final, more so if Oklahoma State is not the Illini’s round-of-16 opponent. This year it appears there is greater upset potential in the potential regional semifinal matchups for the No. 1 seeds — save Baylor — so there may be something to the President’s having faith in chalk.”

Even though he didn’t pick the Tar Heels (8) to make it to the Final Four, for once.

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