Obama's March Madness? Why he's taking British PM to hoops extravaganza.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in the US, so why not hold the press conference at a March Madness basketball game? What do you think of Iran, Mr. Cameron ... and please pass the corn dogs. 

Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
US President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk to the Marine One helicopter before departing for Ohio from Washington Tuesday.

It’s the visuals, stupid!

That’s the message behind Tuesday’s halftime press conference with President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron during the NCAA tournament kickoff game in Ohio.

Typically, of course, presidents and prime ministers meet the press in more august settings – ones that are plentiful in gold leaf rather than cheese fries. But holding the only joint press event of Mr. Cameron's visit to the US at a basketball game speaks not only to the perpetual desire to show world leaders as "average Joes," but also to make a statement about the US-British relationship. 

“The message here is that the relationship between Britain and the US is like a relative or a close friend,” says Paul Levinson, a media professor at Fordham University in New York. “You only take someone you like and are comfortable with to your favorite sports game.”

The jaunt on Air Force One from the nation’s capital to the heart of March Madness in the Midwest may be a foreign-policy first, but the strategy is firmly in line with one of the great traditions of American politics – sending the message that no matter how rich or educated, this candidate (as the president is) still relates to common folk.

“This is presidential electoral politics for a populist age,” says Jerald Podair, professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.  

But the populist touch can often backfire. Candidate John Kerry once said he loved "Lambert Field" in Green Bay, Wis. (The Packers' stadium is actually Lambeau Field.) Mitt Romney hobnobbed at the Daytona 500, but said he had friends who were NASCAR team owners.

It "undercut his common-man message by reminding everyone how rich he is,” says Professor Podair.   

The strategy did work for Bill Clinton when he appeared on “Arsenio Hall" playing the saxophone, and it stretches back through William Henry Harrison and his successful “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of 1840.

“This is all about the visuals in a campaign cycle,” says Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism in the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.  “How many times can you broadcast the president speaking from the Rose Garden or the East Room of the White House without people tuning him out?”

But put him at the opening game of a college basketball rite with a sports commentator – Clark Kellogg of CBS Sports – doing the interview, and now “you have something interesting for fans to watch and something new for all the secondary outlets to run,” says Professor Bogardus.

There are risks that the experience could come across as stilted, says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “It’s pretty weird in some ways because Cameron knows nothing about basketball,” he says. “It’s sort of like taking a foreign exchange student to the prom.” 

If Cameron looks out of touch with the game, says Professor Hale, “then Obama risks being associated with that rather than the common-man message he intends.”

And then there is the news from abroad. The appearance of the two figures in such a non-serious setting at a time when dire news from Afghanistan is hovering in the background could be an issue.

But only if the interview delves into hard-news subjects, says Richard Goedkoop, a professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “My guess is that it won't,” he says.

Obama’s use of the halftime broadcast slot marks a new level of message integration in politics, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. 

“He’s just part of the game,” he says.

The British prime minister also comes away with a benefit. “If Obama is using March Madness for a guaranteed audience for his message, then the prime minister gets to slip a pitch for the Summer Olympics in London under his plate as well,” he says.

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