I was stunned – STUNNED – when Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics was rejected apparently with prejudice and contempt – in the first round of voting, no less. And all this in utter disregard of the fact that President and Mrs. Obama had flown all the way to Copenhagen to make this personal appeal.
My assumption was that the choice of Chicago was already a done deal (which was fine with me) and that Obama only went to bask in the glow of this great “victory” for his new, internationalist foreign policy. I assumed that, Chicago style, the money under the table had already exchanged hands and that the votes had been counted. Why else risk the prestige of the American president ?
Now, originally I did not think that such a trip was becoming the American president, notwithstanding that the heads of government of Brazil, Spain and Japan did appear. And that was the point – the United States is not those these middling countries, and its president is not just another leader, primus inter pares (first among many). He is the leader of the free world, the world’s most powerful nation, and the leader who is expected to set the tone and direction of international affairs. So to travel there and make a speech – about himself, mainly – and then to lose ignominiously in the first round was a stinging rebuke to Obama personally and to the United States. And even if he went to satisfy a debt to his Chicago political cronies who stood to make a mini-fortune on these games, the defeat reinforces one unsettling notion about the stagecraft (and statecraft) of this White House: it is amateurish.
Granting that Obama took office with the least experience of any modern president, it is still the responsibility of the White House staff to put the president in positions that enhance his personal – and our national – prestige, rather than dissipate it. I may not care for Obama’s policies, but when the American President can be so easily trifled with – dismissed, as if he were the Prime Minister of, say, Spain – then the United States is hurt. And that is what is happening across the globe. Obama packs no punches, carries no weight, and has to be chided even by… France (!) for a lack of toughness.
Certainly, Netanyahu was able to reject Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze by just saying “no” (as advised in this space several months ago) without any consequences, and to his credit. That is good for Israel. What is bad for Israel – and the free world – is when Obama’s efforts are also summarily rejected by Iran, North Korea, Russia and the list goes on. There is a lack of gravitas, and experience, that might turn out to be frightening. Nations toy with him; he fires a volley of words at them, and they respond – occasionally – with pleasing words to him, that buys time but does not change behavior. That is more than naiveté; that is amateur hour in prime time.
Witness as well this week’s White House visit of dozens of doctors in support of Obama’s health coverage proposals. It is fine for him to rally support – but to dress them all in white coats, as if they were coming straight from their offices ? And for the White House to provide white coats to those who didn’t bring them ? Such a display – hokey beyond description – is a childish and heavy-handed attempt at a photo op and unworthy of an American president.
Every president uses photo ops to reinforce his image or policy goals. But do it with class, with dignity, and with more than five seconds’ of thought. Think Mike Deaver, Dick Morris or Karl Rove, and – like them or not – they knew how to stage-manage a presidency. Amateur hour can have grave consequences, far beyond the joy of watching pole-vaulters and marathon runners alongside Lake Michigan.