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If Barack Obama Were A Quarterback, Who Would He Be?

In an interview with Bill Simmons for GQ Magazine, President Obama said he feels like he’s “maybe [Aaron] Rodgers in the pocket, in the sense of you can’t be distracted by what’s around you, you’ve got to be looking downfield. And I think that’s a quality that I have—not getting flustered in what’s around me.” That felt to us like a description of any decent quarterback. So some FiveThirtyEight writers gathered on Slack to answer a pressing question: If Barack Obama were a quarterback, which quarterback would he be?

This transcript has been lightly edited.

andrew (Andrew Flowers, quantitative editor): I say President Obama is most like Tom Brady. Both are insanely polarizing figures, popular in the Northeast; both came into their respective jobs in a time of crisis; they each had a string of impressive early successes, only to be followed by some catastrophic failures; and their conspiratorial detractors accuse them of illegal maneuvers.

simone (Simone Landon, senior editor): Obama’s not dumb enough to give his Super Bowl rings to Christine Ouzounian, though (as far as we know).

benc (Ben Casselman, economics writer, Patriots fan): No, Andrew. Brady is FDR. This is easy. Both have four wins. Both overcame long odds to achieve greatness. Both are American heroes.

simone: I still think the Rodgers comparison stands, though not for the reasons Obama gave. More like he’s struggling to complete some passes because he’s not getting the support he needs from the rest of his team. Though you could also argue that he’s just leading from behind.

benc: If I’m being uncharitable (but to whom?), Obama is Peyton. Great to watch, but really only one victory to point to.

andrew: So if Obama is Rodgers, does that make Bill Clinton … Brett Favre?

simone: Philandering and all!

nate (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I thought Obama’s likening himself to Rodgers was interesting re: his self-conception. Because as Ben M. has written about, Rodgers is a pretty risk-averse QB, and I think that’s how Obama thinks of himself too.

chadwick (Chadwick Matlin, senior editor): Obama feels to me like a touted rookie who had great initial success, only to wear out his welcome as time went on. Think Vince Young and Mark Sanchez — they won some games in the early going, but the fundamentals were never that strong. Eventually, those fundamentals caught up with him.

walt (Walt Hickey, culture writer): This is silly. Eli Manning is the obvious answer. Loathed in Dallas and in Washington, big wins in 2008 and 2012, the former a surprise coup against an opponent widely considered superior at the beginning of the contest, substantial performance variation, and keeps a lovable but definitely senile old fella around as a sidekick.

nate: Yeah, Eli Manning is clearly correct. Eli has a thing where he’s simultaneously underrated and overrated by different groups of people, which feels true to Obama.



walt: Just look at that, people. Obama’s Gallup approval ratings and the Giants’ Elo ratings, together in one chart. Just look at it.

andrew: But, wait: as Nate knows better than anyone, weren’t Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 to be expected? That’s far from the miracle upsets of Eli Manning.

nate: His win over the “inevitable” Hillary Clinton in 2008 was not expected. Obama’s two signature electoral accomplishments were the 2008 Democratic nomination and the 2012 general election. The 2008 general election was a layup.

simone: Is Hillary Peyton Manning?

nate: No, she’s Tom Brady. Or Bill Belichick. Or something.

andrew: Hillary is Tony Romo — under the biggest spotlight, with a huge legacy attached to her team’s name, yet hasn’t really won anything yet.

simone: Also a huge Jessica Simpson fan.

benc: Nah, I say Romo is John Edwards. Incredible talent. Blew it when it mattered.

benm (Benjamin Morris, sports writer): Obama was much heralded getting into the White House, but I’d focus on what happened to his team. The Democrats looked like a dynasty when Obama took over, and are now a minority in the Senate, an entrenched minority in the House, and they’re practically being wiped out of state governments.

nate: So, we need a QB who had some success, but left his team in bad shape afterward? Drew Brees, maybe?

benm: I’d compare him to the ultimate flashy-but-team-killing QB: Jeff George.

andrew: The defining feature of Obama’s presidency is polarization. The country has only become more polarized under his tenure. So the question is: Which QB is the most polarizing between their fans and to their haters? I stick by my Tom Brady pick.

nate: Tom Brady’s one of the 3-4 best QBs ever, though. I don’t think many people will say that about Obama.

simone: Can we bring some data to bear on this, Neil?

neil (Neil Paine, sports writer): Well, if we’re just looking for teams whose performance mirrored that of Obama’s approval rating since he became president, that team is … Washington! (I converted Obama’s weekly net approval to an Elo scale and looked at the differences for each team since 2008.) I don’t know if that makes Obama Robert Griffin III, but his approval doesn’t track with good teams.

nate: But there’s this contradiction in Obama’s presidency, which is that it seems like it’s had extraordinary highs and lows — and yet, if you look at his approval ratings, they’ve been remarkably consistent. That still takes me back to Eli Manning, who posts pretty much the same stats every year but has wide variation in his outcomes based on his teammates and external circumstances.

simone: Are we perhaps failing to consider that Obama is not a QB at all, but some other position? His electoral successes are maybe more like surprise 40-yard runs than Hail Mary passes. And his day-to-day work is more like a defensive lineman.

benc: Interesting, Simone, in that Obama is often accused of being reactive rather than proactive. A receiver, you might say.

nate: He’s also pretty introverted for a president, which is an unusual characteristic for a quarterback. Although, there’s Andrew Luck. But again, Eli Manning is clearly the right answer so I’m not sure why we’re debating this.

benc: Andrew Luck is Teddy Roosevelt. Total gunslinger, as Ben M. regularly reminds us.

cwick: I’ll reach out to Manning’s people and see how he feels about the comparison. Thanks, everyone! Start preparing your notes on which QB most resembles Donald Trump for our next chat.

nate: Tebow!