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Obama was told a trip to Olympics meeting may clinch Chicago win

Up until a few days before flying to Copenhagen, Obama was not sold on the idea. He was concerned he would be gone when the healthcare debate hit the House or Senate floor.

October 04, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — In the run-up to the Olympics vote, the White House was getting a clear message from the architects of Chicago's bid: Balloting would be tight, and a personal visit to Copenhagen from President Obama just might lock in a victory.

Leaders of the Windy City's campaign to secure the 2016 Summer Games had done some nose-counting and were convinced that the International Olympic Committee might well anoint Chicago as host, according to White House officials interviewed Saturday.

"The intelligence that we had from the U.S. Olympic Committee and Chicago bid team was that it was very close and therefore well worth our efforts," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House advisor. "The message was that . . . a personal appeal from the president would make a huge difference."

In the end, Obama's whirlwind appearance before the IOC proved a disappointment. Chicago lost out to Rio de Janeiro, finishing last among the four finalists. Since the defeat, the White House has defended the trip as a worthy investment of the president's time.

But Obama and his advisors were not sold on the idea until just a few days before Air Force One took off for Copenhagen.

Earlier, the president had agreed to engage in some quiet lobbying. Working from the White House, he placed calls to half a dozen influential people, including IOC President Jacques Rogge. It quickly became clear that other heads of state were doing the same thing -- especially the president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"It was apparent when he made those calls that Lula had been there earlier," senior White House aide David Axelrod said.

Phone calls were the easy part. A knottier question was whether the president should travel to Denmark for Chicago's presentation Friday.

Within the White House, Jarrett relayed the argument that a presidential visit might make the difference. A close friend of the president from Chicago, she had been a strong proponent of the drive to deliver the Games.

In the spring, Jarrett told an IOC panel that the White House was prepared to lend enormous logistical support to the Games.

But the healthcare bill now grinding its way through Congress was a complication. Healthcare reform is among the president's top domestic priorities, and White House advisors wanted to avoid two scenarios: They didn't want Obama to be in Copenhagen while lawmakers debated the bill on the House or Senate floor. Nor did they want the president to commit to going to Denmark and then have to pull out.

So Obama hedged his bets.

Several weeks ago, he was in the Oval Office on the phone with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor wanted him to make the trip. The president told him that he genuinely wanted to go, but was worried about his workload.

"He said, 'I don't want to make a commitment that I can't keep,' " according to Axelrod, who was in the room. " 'So I'm not going to make any final decisions and will keep this open.' "

A few days later, Axelrod said, the president told his staff to send an advance team to Copenhagen just in case. "It was always in his mind that he wanted to go and would go," Axelrod said. "But he needed to leave himself a little bit of room in case healthcare was on the floor."

Throughout, the Chicago team was pushing for the president to make the trip. Daley and Patrick Ryan, chairman of Chicago 2016, were among those who told the White House that the nose count showed a presidential visit might close the sale, Jarrett said.

"It's a secret ballot. You can't necessarily be certain that the people who tell you they'll vote for you ultimately will," Jarrett said. "So I'm sure they did the very best they could do to get the intelligence they had."

The president made his decision last weekend. He conferred with aides monitoring healthcare legislation, who concluded that the bill would not be up for a floor vote in the 24-hour period the president was overseas. So Obama privately told his staff that he would go to Copenhagen, Jarrett said.

Jarrett flew back home with Obama on Air Force One. She said he was unfazed by the loss.

"We have plenty on our plate to do," she said. "He called the president of Brazil from Air Force One to offer congratulations, and by the time we landed in Washington, he was talking about healthcare."


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