It is possible that the defeat of Chicago at the International Olympic Committee, a stunning, first-round defeat, will be good for the president over the long haul. His loyalties to his hometown are unquestioned, but the prospect of Olympic building scandals, of friends and fundraisers benefiting form the Olympic spending, and the virtually inevitable over-budget controversies would not have served Obama well. He has enough problems on his plate as it is.
But it is a defeat nonetheless. Until Monday, the White House had put forward a unified front: The president was too busy to travel to Copenhagen. There were more important things. He would hold back the pressure from his friends and his hometown political machine.
But at the last minute, Obama reversed course. According to Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gave the go-ahead after he realized that the Senate Finance Committee would not be voting out a bill this week. There was always a political risk. Internationally, Obama was offering up a test of his celebrity and influence. Domestically, Obama was inviting criticism for putting his own provincial interests above the national challenges he was facing.
Obama lost on both counts, but neither defeat is likely to linger for long. At 4 p.m. he plans to give an address at the Rose Garden, just a couple hours after Air Force One is scheduled to land outside Washington. If Chicago had won, the president probably would have turned the address into a chance to celebrate his hometown and thank his advisers who helped make the victory possible.
But there is plenty more to talk about, none of it particularly uplifting: new glum unemployment figures; continued deliberations about the ever-grimmer prospects of the war in Afghanistan; the long road ahead for health care reform Congress. In other words, now he is likely to use the speech as a chance to move on, from one defeat to the difficult challenges that lie ahead.
In the meantime, the White House aides are going out to put a brave face forward. “I have no regrets,” said Obama adviser David Axelrod on MSNBC, shortly after the decision. “And I know he doesn’t.” He added, “It was well worth the effort.”