Sept. 16, 2009 -- Let the games begin. Only let them begin – the Obamas say – in Chicago.
The Obamas have taken the power of the presidential bully pulpit to the international stage to help ramp up their hometown's chances of being chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
The first family's home city is among four being considered to host the Olympic Games -- along with Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. The decision will be made Oct. 2 in Copenhagen, and the pressure is on the first family to pull out a win for their hometown.
In an effort to boost Chicago's chances, the first couple romanced the International Olympic Committee from the South Lawn of the White House this afternoon, holding an event devoted to highlighting Chicago's bid for the Olympics and the administration's efforts to promote youth sports.
The president gave a strong pitch for the town where he lived for nearly 25 years, declaring that he hopes to say "let the games begin in the United States."
"Chicago is ready. The American people are ready. We want these games. We want them."
And he made the case, more substantively, that Chicago is an ideal city – not only in style but also situationally.
"I think that one of the most exciting parts of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is that all of the plans being made in Chicago exist within minutes of the city center; easily accessible to commerce and culture, parkland and water -- because we don't want these venues to be far-flung, all over the place. We want to host these Games where we live and work and play."
Obama described his hometown as a "city of broad shoulders and big hearts and bold dreams; a city of legendary sports figures, legendary sports venues, and legendary sports fans; a city like America itself, where the world -- the world's races and religions and nationalities come together and reach for the dream that brought them here."
Michelle Obama agreed that Chicago is known for its sports fans, and joked that people keep going to Cubs games, despite their track record.
"Nobody loves sports like the people of Chicago -- trust me. I have spent endless hours in front of baseball TV games, you name it. Whether it's football or soccer, baseball, boxing or a good marathon -- Chicagoans know how to enjoy sports. You know, you have to admit, even White Sox fans are impressed by the fact that even though the Cubs haven't won a World Series in centuries, Cubs games sell out. Everybody's there. It doesn't matter. Win or lose, we are going to watch the Cubs."
The Obamas observed a few demonstrations – judo, fencing and the low balance beam - on the lawn, and the president got a little eager to participate, at times to his wife's dismay.
The president picked up a foam sword, and handed a similar one to his wife, in an attempt to get her to spar with him. But the first lady didn't play ball, quipping that something like that would end up on YouTube quickly.
"Use that picture properly," she joked to the press as she got jabbed with a foam sword by her husband without retaliating.
Obama said during his remarks that he always wanted to fence, and his wife wryly observed that his behind-the-scenes attempt at it was "pathetic."
IOC president Jacques Rogge predicted last week that the race between finalists will likely be decided by "a couple of votes."
Obama's Absence in Copenhagen Will Be Noticed
The leaders of Spain, Tokyo and Brazil have all committed to being in Copenhagen for the meeting to fight for their cities.
Earlier this week, an IOC member said that the president's absence would be felt and could affect his vote.
"I don't think there's an IOC member on the planet that wouldn't love to meet your president. He's a transformational figure in the world today," IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press. "If he can be persuaded to go, I think it makes a huge difference."
But Obama -- faced with a more pressing domestic agenda, especially while the fate of health care reform hangs in the balance -- will pass on a visit. Instead, he will send his wife, born and raised on Chicago's South Side.
"I know that Barack and I would feel such tremendous pride to see the Olympic torch burning brightly in the city that we love so much," the first lady said on the South Lawn today. "So I am honored, deeply honored, to have the opportunity to travel to Copenhagen to make the case for my hometown."
The president explained why he could not go to make the pitch himself.
"I would make the case in Copenhagen personally, if I weren't so firmly committed to making -- making real the promise of quality, affordable health care for every American. But the good news is I'm sending a more compelling superstar to represent the city and country we love, and that is our first lady, Michelle Obama."
The Obamas may get a little extra boost to the effort from a fellow Chicagoan with just as much star power: Oprah Winfrey.
The talk show queen, who hosts her show out of Chicago, tells WLS, ABC's affiliate in Chicago, that she will absolutely go along with Mrs. Obama to lobby in Copenhagen if they need her to go.
The first lady's office and the Chicago2016 Committee has been mum about any plans to use Winfrey, saying no final decisions have been made.
Windy City Pride
"America would love to have an Olympics, but a presidential visit might have seemed frivolous and unnecessary when we are at war, still in financial difficulties and in the middle of a major health care debate," John Fortier, a research fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, said.
Fortier added that one other factor to consider in the White House's decision to hold Obama back was likely that Copenhagen is the site of the major climate change summit this December that the administration has not yet committed to having the president attend.
"It would look bad to the world if he were willing to travel there for the Olympics, but not the environment," Fortier said.
This won't be the first time that the Obamas have been public in their support for Chicago's bid. At the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama took a break from campaigning for his own cause to do a little campaigning for Chicago's cause.
In a surprise appearance in Daly Park in Chicago last June, candidate Obama joked that his Hyde Park home is only two blocks from the proposed Olympic site, and gave a little preview of his high hopes that the Obama residence would still be vacant by the time the 2016 Olympics rolls into town.
"I might have to rent out my house," Obama joked. "I don't know how much it's going to be worth. And I also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to let you know that in 2016 I'll be wrapping up my second term as president. So I can't think of a better way to be marching into Washington Park ... and announcing to the world, 'let the games begin!'"
As president, Obama created the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Support in June and in July he taped a message for International Olympic officials to play when they met in Abuja, Nigeria.
"In bringing the world together in a great celebration of humanity, the Olympic Games empower us -- even if only for a few brief moments -- to focus on all that we share, rather than the things that divide us," the president said in a taped message. "And the games remind us how much we all have to learn from each other. That is why, from the very beginning, I have fully supported Chicago's dream of hosting the 2016 games. If Chicago is selected for this honor, we will ensure that the Olympic and Paralympic Games are a key priority for our nation."