Obama gambles on political clout with pitch to Olympics committee

Putting his political prestige on the line, President Barack Obama has set aside doubts about whether he can leave Washington and will fly to Denmark this week to make a personal appeal to the International Olympics Committee on behalf of Chicago, his adopted hometown.

The White House announced Monday that Obama will arrive in Copenhagen on Friday, just before Chicago makes its formal presentation to Olympics officials who are also considering Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Games. A decision is expected later that day, within hours of Obama’s appearance.

As his proposed healthcare overhaul struggled to gain traction in Congress, Obama had talked about skipping the trip and relying instead on First Lady Michelle Obama as Chicago’s A-list advocate. “I would make the case in Copenhagen personally, if I weren’t so firmly committed to making real the promise of quality, affordable health care for every American,” the president said Sept. 16.

But White House aides said Obama always wanted to make the trip, and he is now satisfied that health care legislation is on track. That allows him to dash to Denmark without being diverted from a crowded agenda, aides said.

“I believe he felt strongly and personally that he should go and make the case of the United States, and that’s what he’s going to do,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

No previous president has made such a trip on behalf of a city vying to host the Olympics. And for Obama, the visit is something of a gamble.

A popular figure overseas, Obama risks looking diminished if Chicago’s bid falls short. But the converse is also true. A Chicago victory would be a feel-good moment for both a nation and a president wrestling with foreign crises in Iran and Afghanistan and partisan wrangling at home.

It also would be a welcome boost for Chicago, where the first family still owns a home within walking distance of the proposed Olympic stadium. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is sending other celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and former Olympians, in support of the bid.

Obama does not plan to be on hand for the final vote. In fact, he plans to be in Denmark only four or five hours, just long enough to see the city’s presentation and to participate in the subsequent question-and-answer session.

But he will also mingle briefly with IOC members before they select a winner ? a personal touch that some observers suggested would be enough to carry the day.

“The impact of his presence in the Chicago delegation is not multiplied by double ? this impact can be multiplied by 25,” said IOC member Ottavio Cinquanta of Italy.

Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant, said “Chicago has a very substantial proposal, but Obama was the missing ingredient. He provides the charisma, the personal touch, and effectively gives them a B-12 shot of charisma, which is needed when one compares Chicago’s bid to Rio’s.”

Some political operatives said that given the stakes, the White House must be confident that Chicago stands a strong chance.

“The risk is that the Olympics committee does the unthinkable and says, ‘Sorry, Charlie,’ ” said Phil Singer, a Democratic political strategist based in Washington. “But the White House wouldn’t be sending him if it wasn’t feeling good about his prospects. No political operation worth its salt would allow its principal to go if it didn’t feel fairly bullish about his chances for success.”

The White House dismissed suggestions that it has any inside information.

Asked if the White House had been led to believe a presidential visit might boost Chicago’s chances, Gibbs said: “Well, I certainly hope that an appearance wouldn’t hurt it. But we have gotten no intelligence on that.”

At a fraught moment in both domestic and foreign affairs, some political strategists and GOP lawmakers said the timing is poor.

Even the White House seemed uncertain. On Sept. 10, Gibbs told reporters that no trip to Copenhagen was scheduled. A White House official later clarified the comment, saying a final decision had not been made.

No shortage of work awaits Obama when he returns from Denmark.

The White House is presently re-evaluating its strategy in Afghanistan, where the top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has warned in a confidential memo that without an infusion of forces the war will be lost.

As for Iran, the U.S. and its allies are confronting intelligence reports that the country is covertly building an underground facility capable of producing nuclear weapons. The U.S. is expected to demand that Iran cooperate more fully with inspectors at a meeting on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland.

Health care legislation is moving through committees, though a bipartisan agreement is proving elusive.

“With all the pressing issues we’re facing right now, I think hopping off to Copenhagen is problematic,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican media consultant who worked for President George W. Bush. “People elected Obama to be president ? not the head of the Illinois chamber of Commerce.”

In an interview, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said Obama is neglecting warnings from McChrystal, while heaping too much time on Chicago’s Olympics bid and frivolous appearances.

“I find it baffling that he has time to go to be on Copenhagen, to be on the (David) Letterman show and almost every other channel except the food network and Fox, but he doesn’t have time to talk to Gen. McChrystal,” Bond said.

The White House disputed that notion. An Obama spokesman said the president has indeed consulted McChrystal. Also, Obama has gotten a weekly written report from McChrystal and plans to speak to the general this week as part of the broad Afghanistan review that is underway.

“What does Sen. Bond have against the Olympics coming to America?” said spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Isn’t that a great thing for the country? How many times has Sen. Bond spoken with Gen. McChrystal?”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.