Does Obama have time to lobby for Chicago's Olympic bid?

Chicago is delighted that Obama will go to the 2016 Summer Olympics host-city selection vote in Copenhagen Oct. 2. But can healthcare reform manage without him – even for a day?

Charles Dharapak/AP
In this Sept. 16 file photo, President Barack Obama uses a light saber as he "attacks" Olympic fencer Tim Morehouse who won a silver medal in Men's Saber Fencing at the Beijing Olympics.

Two weeks ago, President Obama said he was too busy with healthcare reform to go to Copenhagen on Oct. 2 personally to pitch Chicago for the 2016 Summer Games. First lady Michelle Obama would do just fine as head of the delegation.

On second thought....

Now Mr. Obama himself is going – flying out Thursday night, back on Friday – and the White House is on the defensive.

“I think the president believes healthcare is in better shape,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said at a Monday briefing. “I believe he felt strongly and personally that he should go and make the case for the United States.”

The press corps seemed a tad incredulous that healthcare was faring that much better than two weeks ago and returned to the topic repeatedly. Twenty-three times, to be exact. Mr. Gibbs insisted that Obama would have made the same move for any US city, and not just because it’s Chicago.

USOC to Obama: We need you

But as concern grew that Chicago was going to lose, Obama faced increasing pressure to go. Last week, the White House revealed that an advance team had gone to Copenhagen, “to preserve the option” for Obama to go, as Gibbs put it.

Privately, administration officials suggested Obama would go if he thought he could tip the decision.

There’s also evidence that a personal appearance by a country’s leader can make a difference. London won the 2012 Summer Games after then-Prime Minister Tony Blair personally showed up at the meeting. (Paris was the favorite going in.) Sochi won the 2014 Winter Games after Russia’s then-prime minister, Vladimir Putin, showed up.

For the 2016 Summer Games, Chicago is competing against Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo.

Another thing on Obama's to-do list

But even if Obama succeeds in helping Chicago win its Olympic bid, his intervention raises a larger question: Is Obama spreading himself too thin?

Gibbs’s comment notwithstanding, the future of healthcare reform hangs in the balance, and the president is at a crucial turning point on the future of US involvement in Afghanistan. He also faces a self-imposed January deadline for closing the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a deadline the administration is likely to miss, top officials say.

As much as Obama has tried to steer media coverage through his use of the bully pulpit, his experience has shown that it’s impossible for any one person to control the news.

In July, at the end of an hour-long press conference on healthcare, a question about the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. triggered a week-long national digression on race – with Obama squarely at the center.

Walk, chew gum, win Olympic bid

All presidents like to show that they can walk and chew gum at the same time – that they will not become mired in the details of governing, as President Carter did, or depressed in the face of daunting challenges, as President Johnson did.

If Obama leaves Copenhagen with the prize for Chicago, all will likely be forgiven. But failure would be a blow to his prestige, and would raise further questions about how he juggles priorities.

For now, though, Obama’s old friends in Chicago are thrilled that he is going to bat for them.

"President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama symbolize the hope, opportunity, and inspiration that makes Chicago great, and we are honored to have two of our city's most accomplished residents leading our delegation in Copenhagen," Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a statement.


Obama to the rescue

How badly did the US Olympic Committee want Obama to go to Copenhagen? Click here, to read about how the Chicago 2016 bid was in grave peril if he stayed in Washington.


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