Facing angry veterans, an uphill climb for his party in this year’s elections and a possible sanctions war with Russia, President Barack Obama is turning to a time-tested safe harbor for U.S. presidents: sports.
Obama is making a week of it, celebrating games large and small. A day after feting the National Football League champion Seattle Seahawks at the White House, Obama was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, today to promote tourism and economic development.
He started the week by dropping in on co-ed Little League players at a neighborhood recreation field in Washington, tossing a ball and posing for photos.
“Sports-related events become wonderful escapes for presidents who have a lot of things going wrong,” said Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary who now works as a sports media consultant. “They typically don’t lend themselves to partisanship or controversy, they’re an enjoyable getaway, and that might be one of the reasons there’s been an increase in them on the president’s schedule.”
Sports teams have been showing up at the White House since the mid-19th century administration of Andrew Johnson, who invited baseball clubs to the executive mansion starting in 1865. And baseball dominated presidential attention through much of the 20th century. President William Taft, who saw 14 baseball games while in office, started the tradition of the commander-in-chief throwing out a season-opening first pitch in 1910, according to the baseball-almanac.com.
Babe Ruth, one of baseball’s most famous sluggers, got personal visits with presidents, both sitting and future. In 1921, he stopped in at the White House for an audience with President Warren G. Harding. In 1948, near the end of his life, he took part in a ceremony as he donated the manuscript of his autobiography to Yale University. Receiving it for the school was the captain of Yale’s baseball team, George H.W. Bush, who became the 41st president of the U.S.
The connection to baseball was even deeper for Bush’s son and Fleischer’s former boss. George W. Bush, the 43rd president, was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team before running for office.
Football’s entry as a tool for burnishing presidential images emerged over recent decades.
President Richard M. Nixon was known as a fanatical football fan. At that point, presidential homages were delivered by telephone to the locker rooms of championship winners. Nixon, though, used the phone for more than congratulations. He famously called Washington Redskins coach George Allen before a 1971 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers to suggest a play. Allen used it, according to a history compiled by NFL Films. Washington lost yardage on the play.
The first Super Bowl winning team brought to the White House, according to NFL Film, was the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, invited by President Jimmy Carter as he geared up for an ultimately losing 1980 re-election battle with Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who then initiated the tradition of annually inviting the Super Bowl champions to the White House when he hosted the 1986 New York Giants.
The inaugural honor would have gone to the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose White House ceremony was canceled because of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the NFL Films history says. All seven crew members perished when the Challenger disintegrated minutes into its flight in January, 1986.
Obama, who calls Chicago home, stepped in to belatedly honor that Bears team at the White House in 2011. He reached into the past again last year to hold a ceremony for the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL team to compile an undefeated record for the season.
Obama, 52, an avid basketball fan and golfer, has expanded the scope of the spotlight presidents put on athletes.
Soccer teams, men’s and women’s professional and collegiate basketball teams, hockey teams and NASCAR champions all have been accorded the White House treatment by him.
Obama has also given Super Bowl Sunday interviews with the network broadcasting the NFL championship and appeared each year on sports cable channel ESPN to reveal his picks for the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. He even took U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to an NCAA tournament game in 2012 in Ohio before a state dinner.
At the baseball hall of fame, Obama took a tour with former outfielder outfielder Andre Dawson, who was inducted in 2010 after a career mostly spent with the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs. The president gripped the baseball tossed out by Taft in 1910 and tried on a World Series ring for the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team.
The Cooperstown stop was keyed to an administration drive to promote tourism as a source of economic growth. Earlier in the day, Obama met with hotel and travel executives and directed the Commerce and Homeland Security departments to make it easier for foreign tourists to enter the U.S.
“I love baseball, America loves baseball,” he said. “I’m here to talk about jobs.”
Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said the site is “a beacon for tourism in the region and nationally, and there’s nothing that speaks more to Americana than baseball.”
The hall of fame draws nearly 300,000 visitors a year, the chief engine behind $160 million a year for Otsego County’s economy. Idelson said “baseball and the Oval Office have a long relationship,” and “if he’s coming to talk about the presidency and baseball, that’s pretty wholesome.”
Baseball and sports in general allow presidents to connect with a wide swath of Americans -- to transcend partisanship while appealing to a base that leans male and conservative, two areas where Obama tends to fare poorly, said Ron Briley, author of several books on baseball and politics. It’s also a potential distraction from sagging poll numbers, he said.
“When your approval ratings are that low, if you can try and identify yourself with Cooperstown, baseball, teams winning the Super Bowl -- you’re identifying with winners,” he said. Cooperstown “really has some of that Norman Rockwell appeal, not locking the doors, a small town, a charming place.
‘‘As a kid growing up, if I couldn’t talk to my father about anything else, you might say, ’Well, what do you think about the Braves this year, do you think they have a chance?’ he said, referring to Atlanta’s baseball team. ‘‘It’s a safe topic.”
It’s not clear Obama can translate that into any concrete advantage, though, as he seeks to boost Democrats’ fortunes before November’s elections.
Fleischer said this week’s string of sports-related events is probably a happy coincidence for Obama and one that won’t make any difference other than comforting him through tough times.
“I see zero political advantage to any of it,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way. I just look at it as a respite.”