The White House announced Monday that the president will travel Thursday night to Copenhagen to make a personal appearance before the International Olympic Committee as it prepares to announce the host city for the 2016 Summer Games. Obama will join his wife, Michelle, who is leading the U.S. delegation, along with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
But with the health care debate still brewing, with Iran stoking international concerns over its nuclear program and with a decision pending on how to deal with the rising violence in Afghanistan, the president will be leaving at a key time for his administration.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said Obama's decision is a sign that the president needs to "establish some priorities" -- the most pressing of which, he said, is the need to respond to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"The president can't make everything a number one priority, because the end result will be that there is no priority," Hoekstra said. "Nothing is a priority, because everything is a priority."
Obama's trip to Denmark comes as lawmakers in the House and Senate continue their fierce debate over health care legislation, which still hasn't moved to a floor vote in either chamber.
And the president would be leaving right after highly anticipated talks over Iran's nuclear program. The Geneva talks are being held with Iran, Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. They come a week after Iran disclosed the existence of a second nuclear facility, and just days after the Islamic Republic conducted a series of missile tests.
The meeting is considered a key moment in the Obama administration's efforts to pursue a meaningful engagement with the country, while proving it is serious about reining in its nuclear activity.
Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center, questioned why Obama would take time out from such urgent priorities.
"This is head-scratching time. This is evidence that this man just cannot stay away from the klieg lights," Bozell said.
Plus, he said, first lady Michelle Obama was a "perfectly appropriate" pick to lead the delegation in the first place.
"In a way, it's a bit of a slap, certainly not intended, but it is a bit of a slap at Michelle Obama," Bozell said.
But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the first lady is a "powerful presence," and that the president merely wanted to "lend his voice to that."
He dismissed criticism of the trip, saying Obama believes health care reform legislation is in "better shape" than it was just days ago and suggesting a trip to Denmark won't change that.
"Surely, it's within the purview of the president to root for America, but maybe I'm wrong," Gibbs said.
The first lady will still give a presentation to the Olympics committee, alongside her husband.
A White House statement Monday said the president will arrive "just prior" to Chicago's presentation to the committee -- suggesting his visit is timed for maximum impact.
"They will discuss why Chicago is best to host the 2016 Summer Games, and how the United States is eager to bring the world together to celebrate the ideals of the Olympic movement," the statement said.
Since Obama was elected, there has been speculation that the former state senator and U.S. senator from Illinois would step up to the plate to make the case for Chicago to host the Olympics.
His plan to go to Copenhagen was hailed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who will also be attending.
The U.S. Olympic Committee also said in a statement that it "could not be more pleased" by Obama's decision.
"His attendance -- along with that of First Lady Michelle Obama, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and other key members of his staff -- speaks volumes regarding his administration's unprecedented support for this bid and for the worldwide Olympic movement," the statement said.
Chicago faces competition from Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo for the 2016 games. The heads of state for Brazil and Spain are also expected to attend, and Chicago promoters were hoping Obama would help level the playing field.
The trip is relatively brief, White House aides said. Obama plans to return to Washington, D.C., Friday.