Washington Sketch: Sports-Loving President Finds It's Not Always Fun and Games

Political commentary from two of the biggest maws in Washington.
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It had already been a trying month for President Obama, and now this: At a meeting in the Oval Office on Monday, he started dribbling.

The president was meeting with the head of FIFA, the international soccer federation, in hopes of winning the 2018 World Cup for the United States. A ball was produced. "He was making some foot movements," the FIFA official, Switzerland's Sepp Blatter, recounted in the White House driveway, pretending to pass a ball between his feet. "Then he took it on his head."

Blatter's scouting report: "He is not yet ready to be fielding with the first team of the United States."

Obama was not on hand to hear the assessment of his soccer skills. He had gone to the South Portico of the White House to welcome the WNBA champion Detroit Shock. The women presented him with a jersey and a basketball. "Anybody want to play h-o-r-s-e?" he inquired, before passing the ball to aide Reggie Love, a former basketball player at Duke University.

It was Obama's third sports-themed event in five hours -- a scheduling hat trick, trifecta or triple, depending on your game. In a morning speech, he treated Chinese officials to the philosophy of Chinese-born Yao Ming of the NBA's Houston Rockets. "As a new president and also as a basketball fan, I have learned from the words of Yao Ming, who said, 'No matter whether you are new or an old team member, you need time to adjust to one another.' "

To observers of the presidency, the sports imagery may look familiar. Former president George W. "Watch This Drive" Bush was often ridiculed for playing the role of athletic supporter in chief. But Obama, while switching the focus from Texas to Chicago, has been no less fanatical. CBS News's Mark Knoller, the unofficial statistician of the White House press corps, counts 18 sports-related events for Obama in the first six months of his presidency -- not to mention a dozen golf outings and a few off-campus basketball games.

The sports comparison is, of course, a superficial one, but it is part of a paradox of the Obama presidency as it hits the half-year mark: The most extraordinary thing about his presidency so far may be how ordinary it is.

Obama came to power as an agent of change amid almost messianic expectations. But he's run into the usual problems. His health-care reform effort has been postponed because of Democratic infighting. Climate-change legislation is on a slow road, and an overhaul of financial regulations has been watered down by industry. Republicans are united in opposing virtually everything on his agenda.

Obama's poll ratings are identical to Bush's at the same point in his presidency. In the July Washington Post poll, 59 percent of Americans approve of the job the current president is doing, and 38 percent disapprove. Compare that with the July 2001 numbers for Bush, who had lost the popular vote and got the job because of a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision. Support: 59 percent. Oppose: 38 percent.

In the days before his inauguration, 76 percent of the public thought Obama would "bring needed change to Washington." Now 62 percent think he has done so. And only 52 percent think Obama is a "new-style" politician, compared with 43 percent who consider him "old-style." That's not much better than Bill Clinton's numbers after a disastrous first six months.

It's not the result of any big mistake by Obama -- his unwise comments on the Henry Louis Gates arrest last week were a rare exception -- as much as his idealism colliding with this town's reality: The political system is broken and not easily changed.

The reality was visible Monday in the tired face of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as he testily responded to reporters' questions on a variety of unpleasant subjects: the health-care impasse, the Gates controversy, violence in Afghanistan, Joe Biden going off-message, liberal groups attacking Democrats, even the flap over Obama's birth certificate.

ABC News's Jake Tapper pointed out that the administration missed its own deadlines for health care and the treatment of terrorism detainees. "Has the president learned any lessons about setting deadlines?" he asked.

"Not that I know of," the purse-lipped press secretary replied.

CNN's Ed Henry peppered Gibbs with questions about Obama's failure to have the "transparent" development of health-care policy that he promised. When Gibbs tried to deflect the question, Henry scolded him for "brushing it off with a joke."

But if Gibbs was off his game, the same could not be said of Obama on his multi-sport day. He braved the 90-degree heat to stand with the Detroit Shock. "Everybody knows I'm a Chicago Bulls fan," he said, reminding the women that two of their coaches, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, played for the Bulls' rivals, the Detroit Pistons. "To think that I'd be inviting them to the White House is hard to take," he said.

He joked with the Michigan congressional delegation ("Carl Levin always goes left") and eagerly accepted his Shock jersey ("that's what I'm talkin' about").

"And my ball," he called out, grabbing it for the photographs. On the walk back to the Oval Office, he did a crossover dribble and threw a hook pass over his head toward the Rose Garden.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company