WASHINGTON — Basketball fan-in-chief President Barack Obama is giving British Prime Minister David Cameron a front-row seat to March Madness, taking his European partner to an NCAA tournament basketball game in Ohio, an election swing state.
Obama and Cameron are attending a “First Four” matchup in Dayton, Ohio, between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky tonight, a gesture of goodwill during Cameron’s official visit to the United States and a way for an incumbent president to reach sports fans in an election year.
The White House said the trip to the NCAA tournament game was intended to showcase the special relationship between the two key allies during Cameron’s three-day visit. Obama and Cameron will discuss the upcoming NATO and G-8 summits on Wednesday, followed by a state dinner at the White House.
Obama and Cameron were scheduled to appear in a live halftime interview on truTV, which was airing the game, with sportscaster Clark Kellogg. Kellogg interviewed Obama at halftime of a Duke-Georgetown game in 2010 and spoke with the president later that year during a White House game of “HORSE” aired on CBS during the NCAA tournament.
Obama was also maintaining his tradition of discussing his NCAA tournament bracket picks on ESPN, the sports network he watches on a daily basis. The president’s selections for the men’s tournament were being released Wednesday morning.
Republicans panned the trip, saying many Americans would prefer Obama to focus on more pressing issues.
“While showing off our amazing college basketball teams is great, many Americans struggling to find jobs, dealing with soaring gas prices, or concerned with our rising deficit and debt would probably like the president spend at least as much time dealing with those issues,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. There were some bipartisan vibes, however, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, was meeting the duo at the airport and joining Obama and Cameron at the game.
Obama’s quick trip to Ohio gives him a chance to connect with basketball fans and generate attention in Ohio, which he carried in the 2008 election and is considered one of the top toss-up states in 2012. The trip comes one week after Republican front-runner Mitt Romney captured Ohio’s GOP primary.
It also lets Obama lavish praise and attention on Cameron at a time of weighty foreign policy challenges in Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. Britain has been an important U.S. ally in Afghanistan and the bombing campaign in Libya that led to the removal of Moammar Gadhafi.
Cameron is frequently spotted running near his official Downing Street residence, flanked by his security detail, and follows sports like tennis and cricket. But he’s not much of a basketball fan; British Ambassador Peter Westmacott told reporters in Washington on Monday that Cameron was “busy briefing himself on March Madness.”
Basketball has been a big part of Obama’s life. At his Hawaii high school, Obama frequently carried a basketball along with his school books and bonded with his teammates on the court. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, played college basketball at Princeton and is now head coach at Oregon State.
The president regularly plays pickup basketball and keeps close tabs on his favorite NBA team, the Chicago Bulls. In a recent interview, the president said he gets League Pass on his iPad, letting him watch out-of-market NBA games on his tablet computer.
Obama kicked off the basketball season with a Veterans Day game between Michigan State and North Carolina on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in November, enjoying a game on the aircraft carrier that took Osama bin Laden’s body to a burial at sea after the U.S. raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.
The president said in an interview last month with journalist Bill Simmons that the “mythology of sports” is deeply embedded in the U.S., allowing viewers to discern who is winning and who is losing — a principle that could easily be transferred to politics.
“People — for all our differences politically, regionally, economically — most folks understand sports. Probably because it’s one of the few places where it’s a true meritocracy,” Obama said. “Ultimately, who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s performing, who’s not — it’s all laid out there.”