With Olympics, Obama takes a hit along with Chicago

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 2, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- The International Olympic Committee's stinging first-round elimination of Chicago on Friday as the site of the 2016 Summer Games probably won't count much in how history judges Barack Obama's presidency.

However, in setting aside his weightier responsibilities and jetting off to Copenhagen to make a very personal case for his adopted hometown's bid — then losing the gamble — Obama suffered an embarrassing defeat, one watched around the world and celebrated by some of his critics.

The conservative Drudge Report Web site's Headline: "World Rejects Obama: Chicago Out in First Round."

Tim Reid of The Times of London wrote: "Chicago's dismal showing today, after Mr. Obama's personal, impassioned last-minute pitch, is a stunning humiliation for this president. It cannot be emphasised enough how this will feed the perception that on the world stage he looks good — but carries no heft."

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was more circumspect, but still critical.

"While I am disappointed with the IOC's decision, I look forward to the president returning stateside. . . . Our country needs the president's undivided attention on the urgent issues facing American families today: rising unemployment, soaring health care costs, winning the war in Afghanistan and dealing with Iran's nuclear threat."

Obama, who was said to be alone in his cabin on Air Force One between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia when he watched the IOC's decision on television, said he was disappointed but had no regrets about making the trip.

"One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win," the president said in the Rose Garden minutes after he returned. "I believe it's always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States of America and invite the world to come see what we're all about."

Obama also said he'd called Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to congratulate him on Rio de Janeiro's win.

Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said that although critics saw this as an opportunity to score points against Obama, voters probably wouldn't give it much weight.

"My gut is that it's unlikely that this will be a major factor 13 months from now when voters elect a new Congress," he said.

The president's decision to make the pitch — after first saying he had to stay home to work on health care — drew heat from some, but he felt competitive pressure. With Tokyo, Rio and Madrid, Spain, bidding alongside Chicago, and the Japanese prime minister, the president of Brazil and the king of Spain all going, Obama decided he should as well.

In his pitch to the IOC, Obama spoke of his own historic win last November and how an international crowd gathered in Chicago to celebrate.

"Their interest wasn't about me as an individual," he said. "Rather, it was rooted in the belief that America's experiment in democracy still speaks to a set of universal aspirations and ideals."

Obama attempted to ease concerns about poor U.S. treatment of some foreigners in the post-9/11 era, saying that "one of the legacies I want to see coming out of Chicago 2016 hosting of the games Is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world."

"We look like the world. . . . Over the last several years sometimes that fundamental truth about the United States has been lost. And one of the legacies, I think, of this Olympics Games in Chicago would be a restoration of that understanding of what the United States is all about."

When Chicago was knocked out first, it raised two questions: Why weren't Obama's aides better able to gauge the IOC in advance? Further, was this an anti-American statement or was it more about the internal politics of the Olympic committees?

"I think there's certainly some tension between the IOC and the USOC," said Carson Cunningham, a history instructor at DePaul University in Chicago who teaches a course on the modern Olympics. He said the U.S. Olympic Committee got the most TV revenue and inspired jealously among its peers.

Of Chicago's loss, Cunningham said: "Obviously, it's become a political football, and people are going to use it as such. But if you really want to analyze why Chicago lost, it gets a lot more nuanced. Blaming this loss on President Obama's support of the bid, I think, is misleading."

(Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)

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