The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Going Where To Do What?

Obama’s Olympic Sales Trip Is a Horrible Waste of Presidential Time and Prestige

Pundits these days are busy writing columns full of analysis on what President Obama is doing wrong. Since they represent a wide array of ideologies, they have proposed a wide array of helpful solutions. Yet in analyzing the root cause of Obama’s difficulties, they find surprisingly easy concurrence. The President, they maintain, needs to spend less time on television and more time “governing.”

Howard Fineman, not noted for overly critical views of Obama, led the condemnation this week in the current issue of Newsweek. “If ubiquity were the measure of a Presidency,” he muses, “Barack Obama would already be grinning at us from Mount Rushmore.” For Obama to string together enough genuine successes to win re-election and assure his legacy, Fineman advises he must “rely less on charm, rhetoric, and good intentions and more on picking his spots and winning in political combat.”

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dourly echoes the same advice this morning. “Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the President of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the Presidential candidate he no longer is.”

Without doubt, Obama is unafraid to weigh in on any aspect of government, politics, or popular culture. In an increasingly media-driven society with an ever-shortening news cycle, the line between using his office as an effective bully pulpit versus an irrelevant soapbox is often a blurry one. The question is not whether Obama must expose himself to media coverage but whether he suffers from overexposure. The strategy is sound – the disagreement is the proper degree and frequency of its execution.

Well, I have now found an example in which I am fully in agreement with Obama’s critics. The White House announced yesterday that the President would fly to Copenhagen Denmark this Friday as part of the official U.S. delegation supporting the City of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

The reaction to this news by every American, regardless of political or ideological leanings, ought to be an amazed and indignant, “He’s going where to do what?”

This will mark the first time a U.S. President has appeared before the International Olympic Committee in the role of campaigner-in-chief. In fairness, heads of government/State appearing before the IOC to plead for their countries, although a recent trend, has quickly become de rigueur. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair traveled to Singapore to help London win the 2012 Summer Games.

Likewise, government heads will be in Copenhagen for the other cities competing against Chicago. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be making the case for Rio de Janeiro. King Juan Carlos of Spain and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will both attend on behalf of Madrid, and newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will be supporting Tokyo.

In spite of this, Obama originally announced he would not attend, explaining the contentious healthcare reform debate required his full attention in Washington. White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs explained the President had subsequently decided that current Congressional healthcare negotiations were “in a better place,” thus making the trip possible. Alternate scuttlebutt suggests a growing confidence that the IOC’s preference was leaning toward Chicago perked Obama’s interest.

Several Olympic spokespeople agreed Obama’s presence would be a plus for the U.S. bid because most IOC committee members were curious and excited to meet him. On the other hand, Obama’s presence also ups the pressure and exacerbates a sense of failure if the IOC chooses elsewhere.

If Obama chose to attend the Denmark trip due to the hint of a potential political/national victory, it would be an example of what Cohen sees as a disturbing trend in his prioritization process. “A President has to be careful with [his] language,” Cohen explains. “He better mean what he says. The trouble with Obama is that he gets into the moment and means what he says for that moment only.”

A less diplomatic way of saying this is that Obama lacks the discipline to avoid distraction by the issue representing the shiniest pair of keys dangled before his eyes at any moment.

I like the Olympics as much as the next person and I would be proud if the IOC chooses Chicago to host them. However, given the relatively high percentage of games hosted by the United States and Western Europe over the years, I do not see their loss as such a tragedy to warrant the President of the United States flying there in emergency mode to try to charm the committee members.

Would it really be so terrible if one of the other cities won – especially Rio de Janeiro, since South America has yet to host a single Olympics on its continent?

This seems particularly true with healthcare reform still months away from a vote, Cap and Trade stalled if not already dead, a war to wind down in Iraq, one to fight in Afghanistan, and nuclear hot spots to handle in North Korea and Iran. Obama deserves admiration for his willingness to take on a full plate but he is violating the rules of the buffet by going back for seconds before barely starting, let alone finishing, his first portion.

One may argue that Obama can do no harm on this trip, even if he is ultimately unsuccessful, because, in the larger scheme of things, whether Chicago ever gets to host the Summer Olympics is not that important. This, I would counter, is exactly the reason it makes no sense for Obama to go.

If the IOC leadership and the Danes are all eager to see a real, live charismatic and powerful American of color, they can content themselves with Oprah Winfrey. Stay at home, Mr. President!

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