Michelle Obama mapping Olympic lobbying drive
President, First lady to pitch Chicago 2016 at upcoming UN, G20 meetings
WASHINGTON -- Friday afternoon, first lady Michelle Obama huddled for 90 minutes with a close circle of senior advisers in her East Wing office to map strategy for her biggest solo assignment to date: traveling to Copenhagen to lead Chicago's drive to land the 2016 Olympics.
The coming days will put Mrs. Obama on the international stage at a level she -- and the world -- has not seen before as she lobbies in Copenhagen, New York and Pittsburgh for Chicago's bid.
Wednesday evening, the Obamas headline a reception in New York for about 190 world leaders gathered for the opening of the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly. From there, the first couple jump to Pittsburgh to host the G20 global leaders' summit on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, where Mrs. Obama will have her own separate schedule of events. She lands in Copenhagen on Sept. 30 in advance of the International Olympic Committee's Oct. 2 vote to name a host city for the 2016 Summer Games.
Pinch-hitting for the president -- who is staying home to battle for health-care reform legislation -- Mrs. Obama will be in the spotlight as one of the key figures in Chicago's final presentation to the 106 IOC members. Mrs. Obama's biography -- a daughter of Chicago's South Side who grew up near where many of the proposed Olympic venues will be located -- will figure heavily in her pitch.
The first lady will be competing with presidents and prime ministers, the leaders of rival nations Spain, Japan and Brazil who will be promoting Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.
Until now, Mrs. Obama has taken on a supporting role with a small portfolio of noncontroversial issues, generating gobs of positive publicity when she has traveled overseas. Leading the homestretch of Chicago's Olympic charge, however, puts pressure on her to deliver the votes.
"I think what she appreciates is the unique role that she can play in bringing the Games to Chicago. She is very comfortable with the role, she is comfortable advocating on behalf of a city where she grew up, the city that she loves," White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview Friday in her West Wing office. "So I think she is feeling quite confident. Our job is to prepare her and make sure she is ready to go."
Mrs. Obama's presentation will take on a personal note -- something, Jarrett said, that will be important to IOC members.
"A lot of this is they are looking for passion, they are looking for people who actually care. The Olympic movement is more than just the Games, it is a spirit, a philosophy and an approach to life, and I think they are looking for kindred spirits, and in Michelle Obama they will find one."
Jarrett oversees the White House drive to win the Olympics for Chicago and leads the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport, created in June to bolster the Chicago bid. If Chicago gets the Games, Jarrett will be there to cut the red tape for the world. She was the vice chairwoman of the Chicago 2016 committee before joining the Obama administration.
While the White House hosted a splashy South Lawn Olympics event Wednesday -- featuring Olympians and Paralympians demonstrating their sports to the first couple, Mayor Daley and students -- more direct lobbying of diplomats has taken place behind the scenes for months.
Thursday evening, Jarrett and Chicago 2016 President Lori Healey headed to the Capitol for a reception honoring six African ambassadors hosted by Representatives Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee's Africa panel. African nations hold 18 IOC votes, and representatives from three IOC member nations -- Tunisia, Morocco and South Africa -- showed up for cocktails.
"We all had an opportunity to reach out to the African countries to encourage them to encourage their IOC members to support the bid coming from Chicago," Jarrett said. Her office was instrumental in setting up the reception.
Friday, Mrs. Obama gamed her Olympics campaign as she met with Jarrett, Healey; the first lady's chief of staff, Susan Sher, and her deputy, Melissa Winter; policy and projects advisers Jocelyn Frye and Trooper Sanders, and Camille Johnston and Katie McCormick Lelyveld, from Mrs. Obama's communications shop.
Though the IOC electorate numbers only 106, as in any campaign the job is to identify and persuade the undecided. They are also making plans in case the voting goes to a second round -- in which case the United States has to make alliances to pick up the votes from supporters of the nations that did not make the cut -- not unlike the Iowa presidential caucus system, which the Obamas mastered.
"Our office is working closely with Lori and her team to try to figure out . . . how can we maximize the president's time -- are there people who are significant enough that we want him to make some calls? -- and how can we utilize the first lady's time while she is in Copenhagen," Jarrett said.