Why President Obama sat down with Bill Simmons
A president’s time is valuable. He is constantly being pulled in five directions at once — trying to please an unending line of policy and political needs while also attempting to find time for a personal life.
And so, any time President Obama spends a half-hour sitting down with someone, you can be sure there are reasons. Particularly when that someone is a sports journalist like Bill Simmons with whom the President chatted — at length — on Wednesday. (You can read a transcript of the conversation here; you can also download the Simmons’ podcast to get the audio of the interview.)
So, why did the president do it?
Simple: Sports is a universal language that can bridge ideological, cultural and socioeconomic gaps. For example, if you love the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team or the Catholic University field hockey team — just two randomly chosen examples — you are much more inclined to like people who share that fandom regardless of whether you have anything else in common with them. You feel some sort of connection to them. They speak your (sports) language.
Politicians are forever trying to connect with voters by any means necessary. But, it doesn’t always yield positive results — particularly when a politician who doesn’t speak the language of sports tries to fake it. Remember Martha Coakley’s assertion that Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan? Oomph. How about John Kerry referring to Lambeau Field as “Lambert Field” ? Double oomph.
Obama is, clearly, someone who cares about and knows about sports and so is in little danger of committing a Coakley-like error. The President is a devoted pickup basketball player — the Fix is still waiting for his invite to that game! — and on the campaign trail was always captured watching “SportsCenter” on ESPN in between stops.
While making connections with voters who may not be entirely favorably inclined to you is important for all politicians, it’s especially important for Obama whose background — biracial parents, childhood in Hawaii, Harvard Law School etc. — is somewhat unfamiliar to many of the voters he needs to convince to back him if he wants to win a second term in November.
If Obama can find common ground in sports, it’s a potential foothold with voters who might not otherwise be open to listening to his message. (It’s not by accident that Obama is regularly connected to major sporting events; witness the sitdown he did with NBC’s Matt Lauer during the Superbowl pregame show last month.)
There’s also a reason why Obama chose to sit down with Simmons in particular. Simmons is revered by the under-30 crowd who see him as the new iconic sports reporter/columnist. (Confession: The Fix, though well over 30, is an ardent believer in all things Simmons and has had a chance to meet him on one occasion.) Simmons has more than 1 million — 1,642, 522 to be exact — Twitter followers and his “B.S. Report” podcast, which is where the Obama interview originally appeared, is one of the most downloaded podcasts on the web.
It’s no secret that for Obama to win in 2012 he’ll need to find a way to re-create (or at least approximate) the strong turnout numbers that he posted among 18-29 year old voters in 2008. Simmons is a direct conduit to those folks and, in some ways, a validator for Obama among that group. Obama’s decision to sit down with Simmons will say to some younger people that the president “gets it”.
The Simmons interview isn’t going to convince on-the-fence voters that Obama is one of them or deliver the youth vote en masse to the incumbent. (Even Simmons doesn’t have that kind of power.)
But, never forget the connective power that sports holds in the world of politics. Obama’s ability to speak the language of sports is a major political plus for him.