By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
CHICAGO. Sept. 28 -- In the final days of Chicago's quest to host the 2016 Olympics, President Obama is making himself a central player in the effort to bring the Summer Games to his adopted home town, raising the political stakes for the White House with no assurance that the Windy City will win.
Obama announced Monday that he will fly to Denmark for a speaking part in Chicago's final presentation to the International Olympic Committee, ending what has been a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by the White House and Obama friends on behalf of their home town. First lady Michelle Obama, born and raised on the city's South Side, will also address IOC members, who will make their decision Friday, choosing among Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.
Obama said in mid-September that health-care legislation probably would keep him too busy to make the trip, but he now plans to leave Washington on Thursday night for Copenhagen, returning Friday afternoon.
"I think the president believes health care is in better shape," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "I believe he felt strongly and personally that he should go and make the case for the United States, and that's what he's going to do."
Obama appears to be taking a calculated risk. He is setting up the Olympic bidding process as a measure of his powers of diplomatic persuasion while simultaneously confronting issues such as health care, Afghan policy and Iran's nuclear ambitions -- potentially raising questions anew about whether he is doing too much at once.
"You're darned if you do, you're darned if you don't. I'd rather be on the side of doing it," Michelle Obama told reporters, referring to her husband's Olympics decision. "One conversation or one example or illustration that connects could make a difference, and our view is we're not taking a chance."
The competing cities will each be represented in Copenhagen by a head of government, but Obama will be the first U.S. president to make such a personal pitch.
IOC decisions are always unpredictable, and, as usual, several competing factors are at play this year.
By 2016, it will have been 20 years since the United States hosted a Summer Olympics (Atlanta, in 1996). Rio officials, however, are making the case that a South American city has never had an Olympics, winter or summer.
Gibbs called the Chicago bid "far and away" the strongest of the contenders and said in response to potential criticism: "Surely it's within the purview of the president to root for America."
Loyalty to Chicago was central to Obama's choice. And the connection between the city's host committee and the White House could hardly be closer, with speechwriters, Cabinet officers and other administration figures working to capture an Olympics whose opening ceremony would take place three blocks from the Obamas' South Side house.
At last week's meetings at the United Nations and the Group of 20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, the Obamas made pitches to foreign leaders. They have also made personal appeals to IOC members, an effort that will intensify when Michelle Obama arrives in Copenhagen on Wednesday.
Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to the president who also was a deputy chairman of the Chicago host committee, is coordinating the White House effort and will accompany the first lady. She likens the project to a political campaign -- and one particular type of contest that Team Obama relished.
"It's like a caucus, where we're really looking at every single IOC member and what strategy we should implement to secure their votes," said Jarrett, who spent an hour last week with former British prime minister Tony Blair, widely credited with swaying the last few votes when London edged out Paris in the contest to host the 2012 Games.
Jarrett declined to share Blair's advice publicly, saying she feared tipping Chicago's competitors: "Everybody is trying to figure out what everybody else's homestretch strategy is. What's clear is this is a very stiff competition."
If the voting goes beyond one round and Chicago survives as expected, the second choices of some IOC members will come into play.
The Chicago proposal, which carries a city government guarantee against cost overruns, has been in the works for more than three years. Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) has acted as cheerleader in chief, arguing that the Olympics would boost the Windy City's image and spirits and bring in billions of dollars.
Despite an effort widely endorsed by the city's business and political luminaries -- dozens of whom were slated to fly to Copenhagen on Monday night via chartered jet -- a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll suggested that residents are divided. Forty-seven percent favored the bid, while 45 percent opposed it.
Daley blamed economic anxiety and the media, saying Chicagoans would come around.
People are unsettled about job losses, "but if they're upset and you have no vision, your city perishes in the past," Daley said recently. He contends that the Olympics would be a transforming moment for a city whose international profile has already risen because of Obama.
The connections between the White House and the Chicago bid committee are broad and deep, starting with Jarrett, an original member of an exploratory group appointed by Daley. When she left for the White House, her place as deputy chairman was taken by Martin Nesbitt, a businessman and chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and one of Obama's closest friends.
The 13-member board of directors also includes Ariel Investments Chairman John W. Rogers Jr., a close friend of Jarrett and the Obamas. Rogers and Patrick G. Ryan, chairman of the host committee, co-chaired the inaugural festivities.
Obama is sending Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a basketball-playing buddy from the South Side, to Copenhagen to discuss sports and youth projects. Chicago-based talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who led four campaign rallies for Obama, is also part of the delegation.
An array of Obama friends and supporters are members of the vast Chicago 2016 committee, including chief fundraiser Penny Pritzker and family friend Eric E. Whitaker, a University of Chicago public health advocate. Others include onetime political adviser William Daley and dress designer Maria Pinto, a Michelle Obama favorite.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, then a member of Congress, stood applauding on the podium in Daley Plaza last year when Obama publicly endorsed the Chicago bid. David Axelrod, the president's chief political strategist and a longtime Chicagoan, has been advising the Obamas on the issue.
Nesbitt said Obama would be working for the bid even if he had not won the presidency.
"I have talked to him about the Olympics," Nesbitt said. "I know he really supports the effort and he hopes Chicago will get it. He knows how important it is for the city."
Dick Pound, a Canadian IOC member, said Obama is a "new and transformational leader" whose participation in Copenhagen "can only help." He added: "Regardless of how polarized domestic politics is, he is immensely popular . . . and a person who is good in these kinds of situations."
Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Zak in Washington and Amy Shipley in Miami contributed to this report.