October 2, 2009 / 4:19 PM / 10 years ago

Obama's Olympian gamble collapses

By Steve Holland - Analysis

An impersonator of President Barack Obama poses next to a cardboard cutout image of first lady Michelle Obama after Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s politically risky Olympics gamble failed to bring home the gold on Friday when international organizers rejected his personal appeal and denied Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Games.

The president, whose even-tempered personality has earned him the nickname “No Drama Obama,” broke from that mold to make an overnight dash from Washington to Copenhagen to lobby for his hometown.

Obama and his wife Michelle had taken their star power to the Danish capital to make Chicago’s case, ignoring the carping of Republican opponents who charged it was a bad time to go with foreign policy challenges in Iran and Afghanistan and the U.S. Congress bogged down in a domestic healthcare debate.

“I’m asking you to choose Chicago. I’m asking you to choose America,” Michelle Obama told committee members.

Her husband said, “If you do, if we walk this path together, then I promise you this: The city of Chicago and the United States of America will make the world proud.”

All that was for naught as Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting, a decision that brought gasps from the Chicago contingent at the Copenhagen meeting.

Rio de Janeiro won the Olympics two rounds later.

“Early exit stuns Chicago,” said the headline on the Chicago Tribune’s website.

The Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, was unsparing in his criticism of the Democratic president in a statement ahead of the decision and on a day when the U.S. jobless rate rose to 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

“As President Obama travels to Copenhagen to bring the Summer Olympics to his hometown seven years from now, Americans back home are increasingly concerned they won’t have a job seven months from now as they see more and more of their neighbors and friends lose jobs today,” Steele said.

WILL IMPACT LINGER?

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said he believed the issue would not linger.

“It’s a classic political hullabaloo that will fade quickly,” he said. “I think it actually points up a problem the Republicans are having, which is focusing the unhappiness and disagreement they have with Obama. In politics you have to be able to complain about the right things.”

Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, defended Obama’s trip, saying it was not a huge investment of time, and that he had the opportunity to meet U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, who has requested additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan against the wishes of many Democrats.

Of the criticism Obama received for making the trip, Axelrod told Fox News: “If the president hadn’t gone, they would’ve said he should’ve gone. That’s just the nature of the business.”

Axelrod told CNN he did not see the vote as a “repudiation of the president or the first lady” because it was a competitive process and the International Olympics Committee has its own internal politics such as the fact that a former IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, led Madrid’s bid.

“I’m sure those relationships meant something,” he said.

Madrid made it to the final round before losing to Rio de Janeiro.

The Obama-McChrystal meeting aboard Air Force One as it sat on the tarmac in Copenhagen may help Obama ward off Republican criticism that he had spoken to McChrystal, his main commander in Afghanistan, only one time on the phone before launching a lengthy war strategy review.

Obama had originally planned not to go to Denmark but changed his mind when it was clear that other leaders wanting their countries to host the 2016 Games would be there.

The Democratic president got the bad news as Air Force One flew him back to Washington, where just about every move he makes goes under a partisan microscope.

Republican strategist Scott Reed said he was surprised Obama did not make a side trip to see U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“It just seems a little parochial to have the commander-in-chief running over to a pep rally unless you go visit the troops and make it a justifiable trip,” he said.

Editing by Howard Goller

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