I generally stick to pure economic policy issues, but will stray a bit to discuss the 2016 Olympic bid.  I am a bit of an Olympics nut, and the intersection with the Washington debate interests me.

I attended two Olympics, the Barcelona ’92 games and the Atlanta ’96 games.  I worked as a volunteer at the Atlanta Games.  I hope to attend many future Olympics to support American athletes.

In the Summer of 2008 I ran a small project in the White House, in which members of the White House staff sent personal letters to every member of the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing.  The letters were delivered to the athletes in their residential village.  It was a small gesture of support, but neat to know that each athlete representing the USA knew they had a specific person in the White House rooting for them.  A few dozen durable friendships were created by this effort, and many of the US Olympians brought their families to the White House for West Wing tours given by their new staff friends.

President Bush enjoyed enormously his time at the Beijing Summer Games, as well as the athletes’ visits to the White House.  One comment in particular struck me:  the President said that the American athletes were universally appreciative that he attended.  To them, the President was a symbol of America, not a representative of any particular political party or policy agenda.  By attending the games and supporting the team, he was demonstrating that America supports her athletes in competition with other nations.

I apply the same approach to President Obama’s trip to Copenhagen in support of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Games.

  • I am glad the President went to Copenhagen to support the Chicago bid.
  • Yes, it represents a signaling of Presidential priorities, and yes, national security issues and health care reform are top policy priorities.  Presidents attend symbolic public events several times each week, and these events consume very little of their time.  The only thing differentiating this event is the additional time and expense of traveling to Copenhagen.  Hosting the Olympics is an element of soft power, and the host country generally benefits on the world stage.  Chicago’s loss is therefore America’s loss.
  • Federal funds do not directly support American cities when they host the Olympics.  That makes sense to me.  The Olympics are a private operation, and as a general matter federal taxpayers should not be funding it.  If a city wants to spend their own funds, that’s a decision for their local officials and citizens.
  • When an American city does host, federal funds are expended to the extent there are national and homeland security interests at stake.  This seems entirely appropriate.  The same is true for many “events of national significance,” like the Presidential Inaugural, the fireworks in DC on Independence Day, or the Super Bowl.
  • Similarly, the taxpayer-financed cost of the President’s trip to Copenhagen doesn’t bother me.  I look on this as a diplomatic trip.
  • This is particularly true given that the bid city was the President’s hometown.  I would have thought it odd had he not flown to Copenhagen to support Chicago.
  • He took a risk by placing his personal prestige on the line.  Then again, had he not traveled to Copenhagen and Chicago lost, he would be heavily second-guessed now. “If only he had attended …”
  • There is a principled conservative argument that he should not have gone, based on other higher priority uses of his time.  I do not subscribe to that argument, but it’s a reasonable argument to make.  This is clearly one of those diplomatic judgment calls that belongs solely to the President.
  • I strongly disagree with those on the right who cheer the Chicago bid loss as a diminution of a President whose policy agenda they oppose.  I have strong policy disagreements with the Obama Administration, including on some international issues.  But I never want him to fail when he is representing the U.S. in a diplomatic environment, even when I disagree with the policy agenda he is promoting.  A weaker American President on the world stage hurts America as a nation.  It’s wrong to cheer when our President is perceived as having failed overseas, and it’s counterproductive and foolish to focus too narrowly on the domestic partisan battle.
  • It’s the flippin’ Olympics.  Cut the guy some slack.

To those who claim that Chicago lost the bid because the rest of the world hates the U.S. because of the policies of the Bush Administration, I recommend a little deeper research into the internal politics of Olympic organizations.  My conversations suggest that Chicago was instead harmed primarily by the past behavior (under prior leadership) of the U.S. Olympic Committee in its dealings with the International Olympic Committee and other National Olympic Committees.  When the Olympics are held in the U.S., the global advertising revenue is much higher, and so there is a bigger revenue pie for the National Olympic Committees and the IOC to fight over.  At the same time, there is an ongoing dispute about how to divide up that pie, and I understand the IOC’s denial of Chicago to be in part related to those negotiations.  It looks to me like the IOC chose to award the host city to South America for the first time ever, as well as to send a signal to the USOC about their past behavior in the long-term international negotiation about Olympic advertising revenues.

There may have been payback against America in denying the Chicago bid, but as best I can tell it had much more to do with Olympic revenue-sharing and power struggles than with global diplomacy or the pitch made by President Obama.

I applaud President Obama for having traveled to Copenhagen to support Chicago’s bid.