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Why Obama Failed in Copenhagen

Was this the first meaningful poll for the 2012 presidential race?

by
James V. DeLong

Bio

October 7, 2009 - 12:06 am

No one outside of the Chicago-White House axis, or the International Olympic Committee (IOC), can claim true understanding of the reasons for Obama’s trip to Copenhagen or its surprising outcome. Going into the vote, Chicago was the favorite, with 4-5 odds from one of London’s best bookmakers. In the event, the city received only 18 votes out of 94 and finished behind long-shot Madrid, which had gone off at 8 to 1.

The most rational explanation for the reversal is “money.” Oh, not bribery, even though the IOC is rumored to be less than perfect. But the main concern of IOC members must be that every set of games be a glitzy and successful affair, and this means they must be confident that if the deadlines loom and the facilities must be constructed out of bricks of hundred dollar bills, such will be done if necessary. Personal connections or even corruption might determine the choice between qualified cities, but they would not overcome committee members’ determination that success be guaranteed.

When President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke, there was no doubt that his bid was by the nation of Brazil ($14 billion worth of commitment) and not by the city of Rio alone. The bricks of reais will be there if needed. Chicago’s bid was supported only by the city, and even that support was a bit dubious because Mayor Daley had only reluctantly agreed to commit the city to cover any losses and had repeatedly assured taxpayers that they would not be on the hook and that money would be coming from other sources.

There was no national backstop for Chicago; the U.S. government does support the Games when they are held in this nation — usually with a couple of billion or so — but no federal promise was formally part of the proposal. If Daley turned out to be wrong because of a bad economy, corruption, or incompetence, his voters might have rebelled whatever the consequences for the Games.

Given this background, the IOC members must have been skeptical of Chicago’s finances, which meant that Chicago needed a backup letter of credit. There was no way it could get a formal federal guarantee in time, or maybe at all. The most it could get was a White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic, and Youth Sport which would “coordinate federal resources, and act as liaison to, any organizing committee for an Olympic and Paralympic Games hosted in the United States.”

Such a guarantee is less than copper-riveted, so Chicago tried for the next best thing: the equivalent of a moral obligation bond in the form of an I-lay-my-prestige-on-the-line appearance by Obama. The message sent was that he will be president in 2016 and that his heavy involvement in lobbying for Chicago guaranteed that he would not permit these Olympics to be less than successful even if meeting the promise required him to fill the pipeline with federal money faster than the Chicago machine could steal it.

With Chicago as the bookmakers’ favorite despite the financial concerns, this pitch should have worked, which may be why Obama and his political people did not see it as much of a risk. The moral obligation bond should have put the city over the top.

The IOC did not buy it. Indeed, if the pre-vote odds were right, his pitch lost a lot of votes.

Which raises the interesting question, “Why?”

Four  possibilities come to mind. The IOC:

(1) Was off-put by the solipsistic appeals by the first couple;

(2) Did not regard Obama as a trustworthy keeper of promises;

(3) Did not think he would be able to deliver on his promise even if he wanted to; or

(4) Did not think Obama will be president in 2016, and doubted that his successor would be kindly disposed toward an Obamalympics or Chicago.

It would be interesting to learn more about the IOC members’ thinking, but this may have been the first meaningful opinion poll on the 2012 presidential race.

James V. DeLong lives in Arlington, VA.
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