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White House takes patriotic line on Olympic trip

Some Republicans, including RNC leader Michael Steele, criticize President Obama's trip to Copenhagen to support Chicago's 2016 bid. The administration fires back at their patriotism.

September 30, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — For those arguing that President Obama is neglecting important work by flying to Denmark in support of Chicago's Olympics bid, the White House has settled on an answer:

You don't think America should host the Olympics?

A White House aide trotted out that argument against Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, who said this week that the president should stay put and consult his generals about the state of the war in Afghanistan.

"What does Sen. Bond have against the Olympics coming to America?" spokesman Tommy Vietor asked.

Echoing that line, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had harsh words for Republican National Committee leader Michael Steele, who said Tuesday that Obama needed to focus on jobs, not the 2016 Olympics.

Steele told reporters in a conference call: "I think, while it's a noble idea for the president to want to pitch his home city, Chi-town, for the Olympics -- and, of course, America would be more than honored to host the Olympics in the future -- I think that at a time of war, I think at a time of recession, at a time where Americans have expressed rather significantly their concerns and frustrations over the course of the spring and summer about healthcare . . . this trip, while nice, is not necessary for the president."

A couple of hours later, at his daily briefing, Gibbs got his say: "Who's [Steele] rooting for? Is he hoping to hop a plane to Brazil and catch the Olympics in Rio? Maybe it's Madrid."

Obama plans to leave for Copenhagen on Thursday night, arriving shortly before Chicago makes its formal pitch to the International Olympic Committee. The president will take part in a question-and-answer session and mingle with IOC members in hopes of influencing a few votes.

While casting the president's mission as a patriotic act may serve to preempt some criticism, the White House previously had signaled concern over how such a trip would look. Obama himself suggested earlier this month that he would skip the trip because of the raging healthcare debate. Sending First Lady Michelle Obama would suffice, he said.

But, arguing that healthcare legislation is on track, the White House now says the president can afford to leave town.

It won't be a sightseeing trip, however. Obama will be on the ground in Denmark for just four or five hours, returning to Washington on Friday. He isn't even staying for the final IOC vote, which will take place after the cities still in contention make their cases Friday.

But looking for traction, some Republicans are hoping that the Copenhagen visit strikes Americans as frivolous, given the sour economy and reports that Iran is operating a covert nuclear facility.

After Gibbs spoke, a Steele spokesman took another swipe.

"The RNC chairman is rooting for the president to focus on job creation," said Trevor Francis, RNC communications director. "Going to Copenhagen won't help turn that tide of job loss."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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