For President Obama, politics translates to sports, and the two worlds often come together.
The president’s goal — from the basketball court to the Scrabble board and campaign trail — say those who know him, is simple: He wants to win, and he strategizes and carries himself the way LeBron James would as he prepares for the NBA finals.
“He’s the most competitive person I know,” added Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary. “If there is some function of scoring kept, he’s playing as hard as he can to win, whether it’s basketball or cards or anything else.”
The danger for the über-competitive president (known for trash-talking on the basketball court) comes in believing his own hype.
In recent days, in interviews and speeches, Obama has advertised that he surprised NBA player Chris Paul with his “solid” crossover move when he played the Los Angeles Clippers point guard in hoops. He has also repeated time and again that he’ll win the battle against his likely opponent Mitt Romney, saying he’s got five more years in office.
“He fancies himself as Mr. Drive-to-the-Hoop and almost always drips confidence — that’s the attitude he revels in,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University, who specializes in political communication. “And he has every right to feel confident especially after what the last two years have been like, but he has to be very careful not to come across as arrogant. That’s something he could easily step into and it could be problematic for him.
“If he squanders his likability, he’ll have a hard time running for reelection,” Berkovitz said.
When Obama wanted to emphasize his competitiveness last fall, he took on the air of a baller.
“This is like the second quarter, maybe the third, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Obama said at an Orlando fundraiser in October. “But I want everyone to know I’m a fourth-quarter player … I don’t miss my shots in the fourth quarter.”
The remarks were reminiscent of the time in 2004 — before taking the stage to make his now-famous speech at the Democratic National Convention — when a relatively unknown Obama told a reporter: “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got game.”
Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee, said Americans are “fed up with Obama’s lofty rhetoric and promises.”
“President Obama and his campaign team may feel confident about reelection, but after President Obama led our country to record debt, tax increases and gas prices that have doubled, the American people have very little confidence he can turn our country around with another five years in the White House,” Kukowski said.
But in recent days, with unemployment down and Republicans embroiled in a bitter battle over the GOP presidential nomination, Obama has seized the moment with a sort of presidential swagger.
At a press conference on Tuesday, he railed against Romney for his “bluster” on a possible war with Iran, saying in very stark terms that he’s the commander in chief and Romney is just campaigning. “This is not a game,” Obama said. “There’s nothing casual about it.”
Moments later, after he was asked to respond to Romney’s comment about being “the most feckless president” since Jimmy Carter, Obama chuckled before delivering a message to the GOP front-runner on Super Tuesday: “Good luck tonight.”
Observers say Obama’s attitude merely reflects the current state of play in this year’s election.
“His opponents have given him every reason to be confident, if not overconfident,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “The way the campaign is shaping, they’re feeling better and better about their prospects.”
Jillson said Obama, arguably the most athletic president in recent memory, uses sports analogies and metaphors because they generally work — especially for him. “They’re part of normal conversation, particularly among men,” he said. “The idea of finishing strong and being a clutch shooter and hitting your shots is interpretable by anyone.”
Sports and politics go together. And those who have opposed Obama say some of that confidence may come from the basketball court.
Rey Decerega learned what Obama might be like on the political field when he shot hoops with him on Thanksgiving weekend 2010. A friendly game of pickup resulted in the president needing 12 stitches, after Decerega accidentally elbowed the president and busted his lip.
“He plays with a purpose, and that translates to politics,” Decerega, who has shot hoops with Obama twice during the so-called basketball presidency, said in an interview. “The lessons of the game and the values that it gives you carries over to the political world.”
On the day Decerega, the director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, earned the nickname “the Elbow,” he remembers turning to take a shot when he hit Obama.
“I remember him saying as I was driving to the basket, ‘I have him.’ He was guarding me very closely,” he said, adding that Obama “understands the game in spacing and positioning on the court.”
“He has a high basketball IQ,” Decerega said. “He understands the nuance. He knows where to be and who should have the ball at all times.”
In an interview, Love said Obama “competes at a high level” and expects the competition to do the same.
“He’s very quick,” Love said. “You can’t leave him open because he will knock down open shots; you can’t let him get confidence in jump shots early on or he will be tough to guard around the perimeter. And he’s a tough defender on defense. You have to be strong with the ball when he is defending you.”
Although some parallels could easily be drawn to his politics, Love said, sports is different because “there’s an actual score being kept, there is a game clock in which the game will be decided and there are officials to help regulate.
“In politics,” he added, “you don’t necessarily have that.”