- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LONDON (AP) - President Barack Obama said Wednesday he’s taken enough flak for his college basketball selections and is not about to wade into European soccer _ or, as he correctly called it in London, “football.”

A reporter asked Obama about his picks for the upcoming World Cup qualifier between England and Ukraine. Obama, laughing at himself as he stood beside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, balked. He noted his college basketball predictions had “stirred up all kind of controversy.”

“The last thing I’m going to do is wade into European football,” Obama said, using the European name for what’s known as soccer in the U.S. “That would be a mistake. I didn’t get a briefing on that, but I sense that would be a mistake.”

The president went 1-for-4 on Final Four teams in his NCAA tournament bracket, hitting with North Carolina’s Tar Heels but losing with Louisville.

The split left Obama in the bottom 47 percent of the more than 5 million fans who entered ESPN.com’s pool. After correctly choosing 14 teams to reach the round of 16, his bracket ranked in the top 40 percent.

Obama picked North Carolina to win Monday night’s championship game. His bracket also included Louisville, Pittsburgh and Memphis making the Final Four.

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The geek-in-chief didn’t miss a chance to give technology to new friends.

Obama gave Queen Elizabeth II an engraved iPod during his visit to Buckingham Palace. The portable music device came with headphones and already loaded with 40 songs, all classic show tunes _ including several from “Camelot,” based on the King Arthur legend, and “My Fair Lady,” set in London. The president and first lady also gave the queen a rare book of songs signed by “The King and I” composer Richard Rodgers.

The iPod also included photos and video from the queen’s visit to Washington and Virginia in 2007.

It’s not the first time Obama has given a British leader a tech-based gift. When Brown visited the United States, Obama gave him 25 of his favorite movies on DVD. (Never mind the DVDs didn’t work when Brown took them home because they were meant for use only in North American players.)

Obama is a known technology geek. He successfully fought to keep his mobile e-mail device and aides keep his iPod updated.

In return, the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, gave the Obamas a signed portrait.

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Obama says his favorite part of England is its people. Oh, and the queen isn’t too bad, either.

“There is just an extraordinary affinity and kinship that we have. We owe so much to England; that when you come here there’s that sense of familiarity, as well as difference, that makes it just a special place,” Obama said, seeking to repair a perceived slight against the United States’ close ally.

During Brown’s visit to the United States, the British press suggested Obama didn’t give their leader proper respect; Obama opted for a familiar Oval Office chat instead of the kind of formal news conference afforded some leaders.

In recent weeks, the White House has made a concerted effort to repair that perception.

“There’s one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the queen,” a smiling Obama said. “I’m very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time later this evening. And as you might imagine, Michelle has been really thinking that through because I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that’s very important.”

Brown kept pace: “Well, I know the queen is looking forward to welcoming you and she’s very much looking forward to her discussion with you.”

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Obama isn’t dining like a king, but it’s darned close.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was cooking for Obama and other world leaders on the eve of the G-20 economic summit. Oliver designed a menu to highlight the best of British cooking: organic farmed salmon served with foraged samphire and sea kale, a selection of early vegetables, wild garlic and homemade Irish soda bread.

Obama, Brown and other leaders in town for the meetings also were to dine on lamb from North Wales, potatoes, asparagus and wild St. George mushrooms. Dessert? A traditional Bakewell tart with homemade jams and ginger shortbread, of course.

Oliver has cooked twice before at No. 10 Downing St., the British prime minister’s official residence: once for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Italian counterpart Massimo D’Alema in 2000, and again for Blair and former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Oliver, known for his “Naked Chef” cookbooks and television programs, planned to be clothed when he goes into the kitchens for the world leaders.

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Obama and Gordon discussed the global financial crisis. Obama and the prime minister’s sons talked dinosaurs.

The U.S. president joked with reporters that between conversations about foreign policy, he had time to chat with Brown’s two sons about what was on their minds.

“I have to say it’s not just Gordon and Sarah that have been very hospitable. I had a chance to see their two sons and we talked about dinosaurs a little bit _ in between discussions of Afghanistan and Iran,” Obama said with laughter. “So we’ve had a wonderful time.”

It was one of the many nontraditional chats the president engaged in during his first full day in Europe as president.

At the end of a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama tried his hand at his counterpart’s native language.

“I’m still working on my Russian,” Obama said. “The president’s English is much better.”

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