Lessons for Obama from the Super Bowl

Obama invoked a parallel between the presidential race and the NFL championships. But can he be a winning quarterback?

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President Obama speaks with Matt Lauer during a pre-Super Bowl interview.

President Obama made a broad appeal to the American people in his pre-Super Bowl interview with Matt Lauer that spoke to both his psychological strengths and limitations. Known for his last-minute, come-from-behind successes, Obama shares an attitude with winner-take-all quarterback Eli Manning. And eager to get his message to as big an audience as possible, he knows that the best way to get people’s attention is to become part of the cultural event that is Super Bowl Sunday.

What’s more, he knew that his sales pitch for his own high-stakes contest fit right into the day’s programming, unconsciously acknowledging a parallel between the presidential contest and the football game when asked by Lauer to pick a winner: “What the Giants have done coming back from a tough situation in the middle of the season has been pretty remarkable,” he said in an observation that clearly could have been about himself. “It’s going to be a close game. I can’t call it, this is going to be one of those where it comes down to a turnover or some ball on somebody’s helmet…Both teams have their weaknesses, they’re not as strong as they were a couple years ago.”

Indeed he wouldn’t pick a winner — in sharp contrast, as Lauer pointed out, to 2009, when the newly-elected Obama “went out on a limb” and called the game before the opening kick. Not this time: he stayed away from making predictions because, in addition to the relative parity of the Giants and Patriots, and a Presidential aversion to picking one group of constituents over another, he is not nearly as confident in his own prospects in 2012 as he was in 2009 right after his inauguration.

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He was also uncomfortable with Lauer’s questions about whether “the ladies in the Obama household” had posters of handsome Tom Brady on their wall. “The girls, 13 and 10, they’re not quite of the age yet where they start putting up pictures of guys yet,” Obama joked, before noticeably stumbling and losing at least a bit of his composure as he continued. “When that happens I will … I may … you know, call some executive privilege and say that’s not appropriate.” Obama’s rhetoric has repeatedly aligned fatherhood and the presidency, an unconscious connection that is all the more loaded in light of his lack of a paternal role model and his well-known disappointment with his own father.

But he also invokes one of the most powerful tools of the presidency that until recently he has been reluctant to use — the “executive privilege” that has scarcely figured into his governance prior to the recent congressional recess. His discomfort with the power of executive privilege is matched by his discomfort with the idea that his daughters will grow up, a reflection of his frustration that constituents — whether supporters or reactionary obstructionists — are individuals beyond his control. But the fact that he invokes his power at all indicates some level of realization that he has to be more forceful in his fealty to doing what he feels is right than to his idealistic desire to repair his family and heal various internal rifts in his psyche.

He sounded most presidential in the subsequent discussions of foreign policy and the economy, when he once again displayed his mastery of facts, options and ramifications. But to close the sale he came full circle, wrapping himself in game imagery while sounding like a whistle-wearing parent pacing the sidelines during his kids’ game. Attempting to justify his poignant claim that “I deserve a second term” — naively placing the presidential contest in some fair-play field of dreams — he outlined his strategy for victory: “We’ve got to return to old-fashioned American values, everybody getting a fair shot, everybody doing their fair share, everybody playing by the same rules.” Plenty of Americans — perhaps enough to win his reelection — are longing for a father figure in the White House, but to fulfill their fantasies he’s going to have to sound more forceful than the girls’-soccer-coach-in-chief, despite his recent move away from being bipartisan referee. To be a genuine quarterback-President, however, Obama has to call the signals and drive the team forward.

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