It would be easy to read too much into the rejection of Chicago as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics despite the president’s personal lobbying junket to Copenhagen in order to plead the city’s case before a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
But neither should the president get a pass or an “A” for effort — or any other spin one wishes to put on the decision by the IOC to bypass Chicago as host for the games.
In a word, this is a disaster for the president.
“If he goes and does not bring home the Olympics, it’s going to be kind of a blow for him on the international stage where he is immensely popular, which is really the reason why they think it will help the bid for him to go,” said Kenneth Vogel, a senior reporter for Politico.
He placed the prestige of his presidency directly on the line and failed. That’s the bottom line. He gambled with the one thing no president should ever gamble with unless the stakes are much higher than his hometown getting the Olympic games.
What stakes would have justified such a gamble? Jimmy Carter gambled that he could bring Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to Camp David and hash out a peace deal. The odds were against it. It was a huge gamble and Carter, to his credit, worked tirelessly, shuffling back and forth between the two antagonists’ cabins (they refused to meet in the same room), never letting up until he had a deal.
Ronald Reagan’s gamble in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he sought to make huge cuts in nuclear weapons while meeting with Gorbachev, did not turn out as well. When Gorbachev rejected the plan because Reagan would not give up SDI, the Gipper was rightly criticized for it.
Presidential visits are staged down to the last detail. If a treaty is to be signed, experts work for weeks prior to the president’s trip to make sure there are no last-minute hitches. Nothing is left to chance.
With Obama’s visit to Copenhagen, everything was left to chance. We didn’t know that at the time he announced it, however. There were many observers who believed the president wouldn’t make the trip unless he had been given private assurances that his presence would put Chicago over the top.
Given the history of the IOC, such a scenario is not beyond the realm of the impossible. There are few more corrupt international organizations than the cynics who run the “Olympic movement.” With billions of dollars at stake, Chicago wouldn’t be the first city told one thing while the committee went off and did something else. The selection process over the last two decades has been rife with payoff scandals and illegal perks given to IOC members by host cities. Let’s just say that it shouldn”t surprise anyone if Obama was double-crossed.
Absence any evidence to the contrary, we must assume that the president was fully aware of the gamble he was taking. Even Politico’s resident Obama cheerleader Ben Smith had to admit the obvious:
There’s a reason the president is rarely dispatched to a summit whose outcome is uncertain.
And Chicago’s elimination in the first round of voting has to raise questions about whether the White House was getting accurate information about how competitive this was from Chicago’s Olympics organizers.
The White House staked, and lost, some prestige on that one.
Over at Politico’s Arena, both Democrats and Republicans are letting the president have it.
Writes Bradley A. Blakeman, a Republican strategist, consultant, and entrepreneur:
Obama lost his first primary for 2012. To put the prestige of the United States and that of his high office on the line is ridiculous. The sad irony of all this is Clinton spent more time sitting on a tarmac in LA getting his hair cut than Obama spent meeting with Gen. McChrystal sitting on a tarmac in Denmark. Obama does not act like a president.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, opines:
Could this be one more sign that the U.S. Is no longer world champion? Or that the Obama magic that so captivated people outside the U.S. has frayed at the edges internationally too? Perhaps I’m reading too much into a complex decision comparing cities. But the President isn’t a mayor and shouldn’t have taken this risk and squandered credibility when he needs some national victories in Congress on health. He needed to look like a winner, and now he’s personally associated with losing.
There is no doubt that the criticism for this serious mistake in judgment will eventually die down. But the effect is cumulative. The president’s inability to bring health care reform to some kind of a denouement was already dragging his presidency down, along with his popularity and that of his party. The unemployment numbers out today are horrible, with jobs still being sloughed off by companies much faster than the total being created. One of the president’s biggest supporters, Robert Reich, reminds us that for every job lost, another unemployed worker gives up looking.
The president took all of 25 minutes to meet with his Afghanistan commander, General McChrystal, to discuss a situation that is deteriorating by the week. This is incomprehensible given the seriousness of the situation and McChrystal’s dissatisfaction with the administration’s dithering over how to prosecute the war.
The president’s failure in Copenhagen must be viewed in light of what else he might have been doing to address the growing unease with his presidency — his lack of apparent leadership where campaigning has become a substitute for making decisions, for instance. If the essence of leadership is the ability to decide the tough questions, the president is failing in that regard. His own party is wondering how strongly he supports the public option in health insurance reform. His commanding general in Afghanistan is wondering why he can’t get a straight answer on his request for thousands of more troops to stave off disaster.
And the American people are wondering when the president is going to address the growing unemployment figures and lack of economic activity that have everyone worried.
These concerns will only be heightened because the president made the idea of Chicago getting the Olympics a top priority. Having failed there, where does the Obama presidency go now?
Unless Barack Obama can find it within himself to start leading by substantively addressing the growing sense that he’s not in charge, he will discover that even members of his own party will find it difficult to back him when the chips are down.