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October 3, 2009

For Obama, an Unsuccessful Campaign

By PETER BAKER and JEFF ZELENY

WASHINGTON — President Obama not only failed to bring home the gold, he could not even muster the silver or bronze.

A 20-hour mission across the ocean to persuade the International Olympic Committee to give the Summer Games of 2016 to Chicago ended with the president’s adopted hometown finishing fourth of four candidate cities.

Although Chicago might have lost to Rio de Janeiro for reasons that had little to do with Mr. Obama, the fact that he made himself the face of its bid invariably meant that its defeat would be taken as a stinging rejection of its favorite son.

Losing out on the Olympics, of course, is not the sort of war-and-peace issue that defines a presidency, and the embarrassment will presumably fade in a news cycle or two. But it provides fodder for critics who are already using it as a metaphor for a president who, in their view, focuses on the wrong priorities and overestimates his capacity to persuade the world to follow his lead.

Mr. Obama looked glum as he returned to Washington on Friday afternoon and said, “I wish that we had come back with better news from Copenhagen.” He portrayed the defeat as if it were little more than a lost game of pickup basketball. “One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win,” he said in the Rose Garden.

Republicans excoriated Mr. Obama’s decision to go in the first place, even sending out an e-mail statement while he was addressing the committee in Copenhagen with the subject line “Wrong Priorities.” Republicans also quickly linked the failed effort to Friday’s jobs report, which showed the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.8 percent in September.

“Our country needs the president’s undivided attention on the urgent issues facing American families today: rising unemployment, soaring health care costs, winning the war in Afghanistan and dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat,” said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Some International Olympic Committee members said that the vote was not a rejection of Mr. Obama and that his presentation was formidable. Richard W. Pound, a committee member from Canada, said that the other cities wanted to knock Chicago out early because they thought it would have been more difficult to do so in the later rounds.

“I’m sure that a lot of the political maneuvering was based on the fact that Obama was probably going to come and was coming, so they said, ‘We’ve got to keep Chicago out of play or we’re all dead,’  ” said Mr. Pound, who added, “I think he made a lot of friends here, got a lot of respect.”

In Chicago, the disappointment was deep but not aimed at the president. A city preparing for a victory rally — even the famed Picasso in Daley Plaza was decorated with an enormous Olympic medal — reacted with silence and disappointment.

Barry Bowlus, one of those waiting in Daley Plaza, said that at least Mr. Obama had tried. Had he not gone at all, Mr. Bowlus said, “there would have been a lot more heck for him to pay around here.”

Mr. Obama’s decision to become the first American president to lobby the Olympic committee in person, just two weeks after saying he was too busy with health care legislation, was a gamble from the start. It was predicated on the theory that Mr. Obama’s star power overseas — “the best brand in the world,” as his advisers have put it — was luminescent enough to make the difference.

Given that Mr. Obama flew overnight and made his presentation about 3 a.m. Washington time, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said it consumed few regular work hours that would have gone to other priorities. Mr. Obama also used the opportunity to meet for 25 minutes with his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who flew to Copenhagen from London, where he was on business. “The biggest loss of anything on this trip was sleep,” Mr. Gibbs said.

How much it cost taxpayers to fly Air Force One and its backup plane, transport the armored presidential limousines across the ocean and provide security for the whirlwind trip was uncertain.

Mr. Obama was in Copenhagen for just five hours and did not stay for the vote. He learned Chicago lost in the first round while watching a CNN transmission whose signal cut in and out as Air Force One passed over Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

A sense of stunned bewilderment suffused Air Force One and the White House. Only after the defeat did many advisers ask questions about the byzantine politics of the Olympic committee. Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior adviser and a Chicago booster who persuaded him to make the trip while at the United Nations last week, had repeatedly compared the contest to the Iowa caucuses.

But officials said the administration did not independently verify Chicago’s chances, relying instead on the Chicago 2016 committee assertions that the city had enough support to finish in the top two. Mr. Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ms. Jarrett worked the phones in recent weeks without coming away with a sense of how behind Chicago really was.

“Most of our information came from the committee and the Chicago folks,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president. “But I don’t want to leave the impression that somehow we went on the basis of faulty information. We went because it was the right thing to do.”

When Chicago was eliminated in the first round after receiving only 18 of 94 votes, senior Democrats began debating whether it had been wise for the president to become so invested in the bid. But with Mr. Obama flying back to Washington and out of pocket for hours, Mr. Axelrod rushed onto television to defend the effort.

“I don’t view this as a repudiation of the president and the first lady,” he said. “He would do it again if he had the opportunity.”

Still, several friends and aides to Mr. Obama said Friday’s outcome had a similar feeling to the campaign’s loss in the New Hampshire primary.

But unlike the presidential race, the quest to host the Olympic Games had no more contests to go.

Monica Davey contributed reporting from Chicago and Juliet Macur from Copenhagen.