Obama Tied to Olympics, Win or Lose

President's legacy inextricably intertwined with the fate of Chicago’s bid

By Kenneth P. Vogel
|  Friday, Oct 2, 2009  |  Updated 2:21 AM PDT
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Obama Tied to Olympics, Win or Lose

AP

Obama could be held responsible for cost overruns and other problems should Chicago win its Olympic bid.

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President Obama’s hometown allies have brought Chicago to the brink of landing the 2016 Olympic Games, but after Obama makes the city’s case before the International Olympic Committee Friday morning in Copenhagen, the president’s own legacy will become inextricably intertwined with the fate of Chicago’s bid.

History has shown that’s not always a good thing.

Much has been made of the potential international embarrassment and Republican attacks Obama might endure if the IOC rejects his pitch. Yet, any such backlash would likely have limited shelf-life, but a successful outcome in Copenhagen could arm opponents with ammunition for more than six years, particularly if preparations for the Chicago Games were beset by the delays, cost-over-runs and controversies that have plagued Olympics past.

Add the reputation for political corruption in Chicago and Illinois, and you’ve got the basis for a joke making the rounds in Copenhagen, where the IOC also will vote on whether to include rugby and golf in the 2016 Olympics.

“If they’re going to add a new sport for the Chicago Olympics, corruption would be great one – they’re really good at that,” said David Wallechinsky, vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, which is meeting in Copenhagen.

In all seriousness, Wallechinsky said, “I would assume that if Chicago gets the games, Obama would say ‘great,’ and then move on and try to stay clear of it for 6 years. I would, if I were him.”

But it would be hard for Obama to do that, even if he had stayed home from Copenhagen, as the White House initially signaled he would, according to Ben Joravsky, a veteran columnist for the liberal newsweekly Chicago Reader. He predicts the Games will shred the city’s parks, drain its tax dollars and become a patronage vehicle for the political machine headed by Chicago mayor and Obama supporter Richard Daley.

“Obama got out of the swamp. Now why would he want to dive back in?” said Javorsky, who – in a column urging Obama to skip Copenhagen – wrote: “Once you make a grand pitch for Daley's games, they'll become your games too. Every scandal, cost overrun, and delay (and you were around this town long enough to know there will be plenty of each) will be laid at your feet by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and all your other haters.”

National Republicans and local Chicago Olympic opponents have already signaled their desire to use Chicago’s bid and Obama’s connections to it to try to taint him. If Chicago wins, they’ll have plenty of opportunity, since the president and his hometown allies maintain strong political, personal and economic links to the effort.

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt dismissed such attacks as coming from critics “who would say anything to score political points, even if it means rooting for other countries to win their bids by spreading misinformation about America’s bid.”

To be sure, there are potentially huge benefits for both Chicago (which Olympic boosters say will reap new parks and other public facilities funded by private capital), Illinois (which they project could see $22.5 billion of economic development and thousands of jobs from the Games), and Obama.

Not only would a win in Copenhagen give the president a symbolic boost at a time when his administration is struggling to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system, refine its military strategy in Afghanistan and deal with sky-high unemployment, but it could also provide a kind of capstone for his presidency.

The opening ceremonies would be held in the waning months of a potential Obama second term in an 80,000-seat facility to be built in Washington Park – blocks from the Obama family’s Hyde Park home. 

In a surprise appearance at an Olympic-bid rally in that park last year, only days after clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama outlined a dream scenario for him and his Chicago allies.

Then-Sen. Obama told the buoyant hometown crowd that “in 2016, I'll be wrapping up my second term as president, so I can't think of a better way than to be marching into Washington Park along side Mayor Daley, alongside Rahm Emmanuel, alongside Dick Durbin, alongside Valerie Jarrett, as president of the United States and announcing to the world, 'Let the games begin!'"

Jarrett, his long-time friend and now a White House adviser, and Daley are with Obama in Copenhagen, as is First Lady Michelle Obama.

“History has shown if you are an Olympic city, you become an important part of modern worldwide history,” said Dick Pound, an influential IOC member from Canada. “And if you helped make that happen, you have done wonders for your city and country.”

Pound, who said he “would be delighted to meet” Obama and would “thank him for showing his support for his country's Olympic bid,” told POLITICO in the spring that “without Obama in the White House, I would say there would be no chance whatsoever for the U.S. winning.”

But Rhoda Whitehorse, a retired public school teacher and 40-year Chicagoan who traveled to Copenhagen with the group No Games Chicago to urge the IOC to reject the city’s bid, said that Obama, Daley, Jarrett and other Olympic backers are underestimating the mounting popular opposition in their hometown to the games.

Pointing to a September Chicago Tribune poll showing 47 percent favoring the bid and 45 percent opposing it (a falloff from a February Tribune poll showing 2-1 support), Whitehorse predicted “a lot of the backlash will hit President Obama. People who were Obama supporters are appalled that he would support Mayor Daley in this.”

Whitehorse’s group urged Chicagoans to write to Obama stressing the city’s tight budget and social service needs, and asserting the Games “would disrupt and even displace communities in the very city where you worked as a community organizer.”

Populist appeals have been used in other anti-Olympic lobbying efforts, yet some leaders have emerged from their Olympic adventures as hometown heroes, or even saviors.

Mitt Romney’s turnaround job at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games helped catapult him into the Massachusetts’ governor mansion. And former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called his luring and stewardship of the 1984 Summer Olympics “the highlight of my entire political career,” though much of the credit for the L.A. Games’ success went to Peter Ueberroth, who parlayed his stint as organizer into a job as commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Though Atlantans continue to debate whether hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics was a net win – and the Atlanta Games are widely considered “the poster child for a poorly organized Olympics,” according to Wallechinsky – none of the leaders associated with it has been seriously hurt by the legacy.

But Greek politicians are still pointing fingers trying to assign blame for the tens of millions spent since the conclusion of the 2004 Athens Olympics maintaining vacant and dilapidated facilities that have not been converted to public use as promised before the games – a not uncommon phenomenon in Olympic host cities. 

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to lure the 2012 Olympics is commonly considered one of the worst miscalculations in his otherwise charmed career. Although public opinion was clearly running against him, Bloomberg pushed ahead with a plan that centered around erecting a state-of-the-art multi-use stadium on Manhattan’s West Side to be funded with $300 million a-piece from the city and state, and $800 million from the New York Jets football team, which would make its new home there.

Opponents of the plan and of Bloomberg seized on the spectacle of the billionaire mayor pushing a giant taxpayer funded subsidy for a billionaire sports team owner to suggest he was out of touch with average New Yorkers.

“The rascals used to do this sort of thing in back rooms, while worrying about headlines, indictments and handcuffs. Now they've figured out how to do it legally,” opined  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert a couple weeks before an obscure state board sunk the stadium plan, essentially bringing the Olympic bid down with it. 

And, though Bloomberg blasted the state politician who ultimately blocked the stadium, the mayor’s allies later came to regard the collapse of the Olympic bid as a blessing in disguise, since the unpopular bid was bringing down Bloomberg’s own poll numbers as he headed towards a reelection challenge.

Instead, the 2012 Summer Olympics went to London, which scored a surprise, come-from-behind victory over Paris on the strength – many Olympic watchers believe – of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s three-day flurry of closed-door lobbying of IOC members in the run-up to their vote. It was considered a major victory for Blair and a crushing defeat for then-French President Jacques Chirac, who – like Blair – had made his country’s final pitch before the IOC, but hadn’t matched Blair’s behind-the-scenes work.

Though no U.S. president had ever personally pitched the Olympics before Obama, former President Jimmy Carter stands as the recent president who suffered most from his connection to the Olympics. In his case, his leadership of a 61-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is still considered something of a black mark on his legacy.

Obama’s personal involvement in pushing an American bid is unprecedented for a U.S. president.
In addition to being the first president to personally lobby the IOC, Obama established the first-ever White House Olympics office (tapping Jarrett to head it)  and recorded several videos seeking support from IOC sub-committees.

Until joining the Obama administration, Jarrett was both vice chair of Chicago 2016, the $49 million nonprofit enterprise created in 2006 to lead the city’s bid, and CEO of The Habitat Company, a real estate company that is among the bidders to build the 3,500-unit Olympic Village.

Though she sold most of her holdings in Habitat real estate, White House spokesman LaBolt said Jarrett “was unable to sell” one real estate holding and a self-insurance interest.

“The holdings have nothing to do with the Olympic bid,” said LaBolt, adding that ethics officials “determined these presented no conflict in performing her duties as a White House advisor.”

But in order to clear Jarrett to head the Olympic office in spite of her unpaid work for Chicago 2016, the White House ethics lawyer granted her a waiver from Obama’s ethics policy barring officials from working on issues affecting previous employers – something Olympic detractors point to as evidence of the threat of Chicago-style pinstripe patronage if the city wins the games. 

Four of the five co-chairs of Obama’sinaugural committee
continue to have unpaid leadership roles in Chicago 2016, including Pat Ryan, the chairman and CEO of Chicago 2016; John Rodgers, the treasurer and director of Chicago 2016; Bill Daley, the former Clinton administration commerce secretary and brother of the Chicago mayor; and Penny Pritzker, the Chicago businesswoman and Hyatt hotel heiress who led Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign fundraising.

Pritzker’s family also owns or manages a handful of hotels singled out by Chicago 2016 as accommodations for Olympic workers, press and family members.

Ryan and Priztker each contributed $100,000 or more to Chicago 2016, as did White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, an Obama family friend, who also served on the Chicago committee. It still counts Obama confidant and vacation companion Eric Whitaker among its members. Jarrett was replaced as vice chair by Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama’s campaign and another Obama family insider.

ASK Public Strategies, the Chicago-based corporate public relations company founded by Obama political guru David Axelrod and owned and run by some of Obama’s top presidential campaign consultants, was paid “in the tens of thousands” of dollars by Chicago 2016 to do “communication management [and] communication planning,” said former Axelrod partner Eric Sedler, who did not work for the Obama campaign but is in Copenhagen, along with Pritzker and Jarrett.

“ASK has worked on the bid for three years and for two thirds of that time our work has been pro bono,” said Sedler, who would not speculate on whether the company would be in line for more Olympic work if the IOC picks Chicago.

In an ironic twist, ASK in 2004 helped craft an advertising campaign credited with rallying public opposition to Bloomberg’s stadium plan on behalf of the owners Madison Square Garden, who feared that the proposed Olympic stadium – which would have been built blocks away – would have cut into their business.

New York State records show that Madison Square Garden paid ASK $1.16 million in 2004 — the biggest lobbying contract of the year in the state.

Though Axelrod participated in ASK’s first meeting with Chicago 2016 and continues to receive buyout payments from selling ASK last year, LaBolt stressed that ASK’s payments to Axelrod aren’t affected by the firm’s revenue. And he asserted “all Americans stand to benefit from a winning bid to bring the Olympics to Chicago in 2016, but neither David Axelrod nor Valerie Jarrett have a personal financial stake in the bid.”

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