Obamas Fail in Personal Pitch to Bring 2016 Olympics to Chicago

Published October 02, 2009

| FoxNews.com

President Obama's failure to grab gold in his personal quest to send the 2016 Olympics to Chicago was a stunning setback for a president who has enjoyed a pop star reception abroad.

But Obama's stumble may cost him more than the $1.2 million of taxpayer money to make the overnight dash from Washington to Copenhagen.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama risked their political capital and the prestige of the presidency on an enormous Olympic campaign that resulted in an early exit for Chicago and the top prize going to Rio de Janeiro.

After returning to Washington, Obama said he wished he had come back with better news on the Olympics but congratulated Brazil and thanked everyone who worked on Chicago's bid.

"I'm proud I was able to come in and help make the case in person," he said from the White House. "I believe it's always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States of America and invite the world to see what we're all about."

But critics immediately decried Obama's visit to Copenhagen, the first time a U.S. president made such an in-person appeal.

"It demeans the office," said GOP consultant Brad Blakeman, a former Bush administration official. "For the president to be reduced to the effect of the Billy Mays pitchman for the United States to get the Olympics for his home city of Chicago is just not something that presidents do."

Blakeman said Obama spent more time wooing International Olympic Committee officials than he did in his meeting with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, before returning to Washington.

"His priorities are screwed up and the American people are seeing that this president just doesn't get the effects and importance of governing," Blakeman told FOX News.

Instead of making a personal appearance, Blakeman said Obama should have sent a delegation led by the first lady and the mayor of Chicago.

"But it does not warrant the participation of the president of the United States, especially when we didn't get the games," he said. "It puts his prestige on the line and we're rebuffed by a bunch...of thugs steeped in fraud and abuse and the president lowered his high office by doing this."

The White House expressed no regret about Obama's effort.

"There was never any guarantee. All the bids were strong; we knew that," senior White House adviser David Axelrod told FOX News minutes after Chicago was eliminated.

"This president was proud to go and represent our country and make the case for the U.S. and make the case for Chicago," he said. "He'd do it again if he had a chance. We're disappointed it didn't work out but life goes on." 

Chicago's elimination was one of the most shocking defeats in IOC voting history. It had long been seen as a front-runner and got the highest possible level of support -- from the president of the United States himself.

But the emotional appeals from Obama and his wife Michelle -- they both flew to Copenhagen to fight in Chicago's corner -- fell on deaf ears in the European-dominated IOC. The IOC's last two experiences in the United States were bad: the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics were sullied by a bribery scandal and logistical problems and a bombing hit the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

"I urge you to choose Chicago for the same reasons I chose Chicago nearly 25 years ago -- the reasons I fell in love with the city I still call home," Obama told members of the International Olympic Committee, many of whom he later mingled with as some snapped photos of him on their cell phones.

"And 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," the president said.

Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo made their cases to the IOC for more than a year, with many IOC members believed to be undecided as late as Friday night.

By the time the winning bid was announced, the Obamas were back on a plane to Washington.

The president's whirlwind trip put him in the Danish capital for less than five hours Friday, with Chicago-backers hoping that would be sufficient to give Obama's adopted home town the advantage it needed to win the close, four-way race to become the host city of the 2016 Summer Games.

But the compressed time frame did not shield Obama from Republican criticism that he shouldn't be hopscotching to Europe in Air Force One when there were so many pressing issues to deal with at home.

Both Obamas spoke on deeply personal terms about Chicago, the city at the center of the world's spotlight so many times, including in November when the former Illinois senator won the White House. The president described Chicago as a city of diversity and warmth, a place where he finally found a home.

"It's a city that works, from its first World's Fair more than a century ago to the World Cup we hosted in the nineties," Obama said. "We know how to put on big events."

For all the anticipation surrounding Obama's appearance in Copenhagen, his arrival at the IOC meeting was decidedly subdued.

The 100-plus committee members, who had already been warned not show bias during the presentations, sat silently as the Obamas walked into the Bella Center with the rest of 12-member Chicago delegation.

Michelle Obama gave a passionate account of what the games would mean to her father, who taught her as a girl how to throw punches better than the boys. She spoke fondly of growing up on the South Side of Chicago, sitting on her father's lap and cheering on Olympic athletes.

The president anchored the U.S. charm offensive,referencing his own election as a moment when people from around the world gathered in Chicago to see the results last November and celebrate that "our diversity could be a source of strength."

Though IOC President Jacques Rogge has said heads of state aren't required to attend the IOC meeting, recent votes indicate their presence can make a difference.

During the 2005 IOC meeting in Singapore, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair successfully lobbied members on behalf of London's bid for the 2012 Summer Games. Two years later, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, helped secure the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi on Russia's Black Sea coast.

FOX News' Eve Zibel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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