The Agony of Obama's Defeat

By Josh Gerstein
|  Friday, Oct 2, 2009  |  Updated 5:45 PM CDT
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The Agony of Obama's Defeat

AP

U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Chicago 2016 CEO Pat Ryan leave the stage after they made a presentation in support of Chicago as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, in Copenhagen. Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo are competing to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the IOC will choose the winning city in a vote on Friday, Oct. 2, in Copenhagen. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

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What was he thinking?

Monday-morning Quarterbacking became Washington’s favorite Olympic sport Friday after President Barack Obama’s in-person pitch failed to bring home the 2016 Olympics to Chicago – and in rather dramatic fashion.

Chicago was wiped out in the first-round of balloting, making Obama’s trip to Copenhagen seem not just unsuccessful but entirely ineffective. Rio grabbed the Games.

A few Democrats were glum, some conservative commentators were downright gleeful and the White House went into high gear trying to explain that Obama had no regrets about making the trip – despite the fact that it exposed that his high-wattage international popularity could only take him so far.

“I have no doubt that it was the strongest bid possible, and I’m proud that I was able to make that case in person,” Obama said after returning to the White House from Copenhagen. “I think 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 said.

He also painted Rio’s win in historic terms for “the Americas” – since it’s the first South Americans city to host the games – and got in a little tepid trash-talking, saying he told Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, “Our athletes will see him on the field of competition of 2016.”

But there was no mistaking the defeat for what it was – Obama’s decision to place his personal and political prestige on the line in hopes of winning the games for his adopted hometown simply fell flat. He might not be George W. Bush – and the world certainly seems grateful for that – but that didn’t mean the 106 notoriously inscrutable (and often notorious) members of the International Olympic committee had to play along.

Rarely has so much global star power been amassed for one Olympic bid – two Obamas and an Oprah – and it still didn’t work. 

Democrats weren’t in an I-told-you-so mood – even the ones, like strategist Paul Begala, who had warned ahead of time that this might be a miscalculation on the part of Obama, already struggling to beat back a growing sense that he’s simply overbooked, what with Iran, Afghanistan, health care and unemployment all crowding for his attention.

“If he doesn't get it, he looks bad,” Begala said on CNN earlier this week. “You know, he does have a full plate. If I was working for him, I'd say, sir, don't go.”

After the vote Friday, Begala reaffirmed his advice, but downplayed the impact of the president’s failed pitch.
“As someone who publicly counseled against the President making this trip, I still admire the guts he showed in taking it. This is a stumble, not a fall,” Begala told POLITICO.

Republican politicians – even some like House Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who took a shot at Obama’s trip – seemed to realize that more comments today would seem like un-seemly piling on, or even downright un-American. 

As former Bush White House aide Scott Stanzel tweeted: "Note to GOP officials/consultants - resist temptation to pile on about Chicago losing just [because] Obama made the pitch."

Republican commentators, however, didn’t hold back, painting the episode as a humiliating rejection of Obama’s claims to have made a sea-change in America’s reputation overseas.

“Hahahahaha. I thought the world would love us more now that Bush was gone. I thought if we whored ourselves out to our enemies, great things would happen. Apparently not,” wrote Eric Erickson at RedState.com.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called it the "worst day of [Obama’s] presidency” and said the president had "wasted his country's time, and his prestige."

"Obama demeaned the office of the presidency, going on this sales pitch," Limbaugh said.

 

Even before Air Force One made it back to Andrews, political finger-pointing broke out. White House officials insisted that Obama decided to go only after very aggressive lobbying from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who offered assurances that the city’s bid was within striking distance of winning.

In interviews just after the decision, White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod suggested that Chicago may have been outmaneuvered in the byzantine world of International Olympic Committee politics.

“I don’t view it as a repudiation of the President or the First Lady,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod told CNN. ‘There are politics everywhere and there were politics inside that room…..There are a lot of factors that go into this.”

“The president made a very strong bid,” Axelrod said. “It wasn’t strong enough to overcome some of the internal currents there…. There are all kinds of cross-currents in the room. There are relationships.”

Axelrod said Madrid may have benefitted from the advocacy of a former IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, but the White House aide insisted that he was not intimating that any improprieties had occurred. “I’m not suggesting anything nefarious……I m not suggesting anything untowards happened,” Axelrod told CNN.

Axelrod also said the White House realized the success of Obama’s mission was far from assured. “We knew it was a very competitive situation,” the adviser told CNN. “We had no illusions going in that this was a done deal if he showed up.”

However, even some of Chicago’s rivals assumed that Obama’s personal intervention would make the Windy City a shoo-in.

Brazilian President Lula told reporters some of his countrymen despaired when they saw Air Force One landing in Denmark Friday—sure that Obama’s star power would sway the delegates.

The defeat could also underscore a perception of helter-skelter decision-making at the White House. White House aides publicly raised the trip as a possibility, then Obama’s attendance was ruled out, then it was announced that an advance team was scouting for him to go, then the trip was back on. All in the course of a couple of weeks.

“This major, major, major embarrassment could come to define the immaturity and narcissism of the Obama Administration,” GOP P.R. consultant Craig Shirley wrote on POLITICO’s Arena.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said Obama’s trip seemed to have been driven by loyalty to Chicago rather than a dispassionate analysis of the pluses and minuses for the presidency.

“Your typical politician would not have gone to Copenhagen because the political analysis is that there was little to gain and more to lose - but he did it because he wanted to help Chicago,” Lehane said. “At the end of the day it is his non-political brand that is ultimately his greatest source of power and leadership... And with that brand means sometimes you take short term hits for not following the politician’s playbook.”

Earlier this week, The White House flatly rejected the notion that Obama’s Chicago ties played any role in his decision or his support for the U.S. bid for the games.

"If it had been Los Angeles, I think the notion that the President would have done less because it was a different U.S. city just doesn’t hold a lot of water," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted earlier this week.

Some analysts find that claim impossible to believe.

“There’s no question that this whole exercise would not have happened had it not been Chicago. I can’t see him doing the same thing for Seattle or Sheboygan,” said Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University. He noted that Obama’s pitch for the city was deeply personal.

“Chicago has a very special meaning to him,” Hess said.

The former White House staffer said he sees the episode as unpleasant for Obama, but easily overstated.

“It is sort of a red-faced embarrassment, but if he wins a few big ones for the Gipper like health care or financial re-regulations, nobody will much think about this,” Hess said. “This is not going to be in the lead or the end of his encyclopedia entry, but his opponents will have a little fun with it.”

Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush contributed to this report.

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