WASHINGTON -- With the American public -- and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney -- focused on the economy, President Barack Obama may not have much at stake politically if there are diplomatic flaps at the NATO Summit in Chicago.
And since Obama already signed a "Strategic Partnership Agreement" with Afghanistan to have most U.S. troops out in 2014 -- he flew to Kabul for the May 1 signing -- there may not be much of a price to pay domestically if pressure comes from the new president of France and other NATO partners in Afghanistan to shorten the timetable.
And if all heck breaks loose in Obama's hometown from protesters? Well, a riot in a president's hometown at a global summit is obviously not good. But the ramifications may not be far reaching. As political time goes, the presidential election is light-years away.
"Nobody in November will remember what happened," an Obama team source told me. It will be a short news cycle on the cable outlets "and a month in the [Chicago] papers."
Romney's team headquartered in Boston is hardly paying attention to the NATO gathering and was not, when I visited on Friday, sizing it up as an obvious political opportunity for them because they want an almost exclusive focus on the economy.
The rapidly expanding Romney operation (overlooking the Charles River) on Friday was ramping up the "message of the week" theme for this week -- on government spending. Romney hits the Chicago area on Tuesday for a fund-raiser at the Winnetka home of Pat Ryan -- the insurance mogul and civic activist -- and his wife, Shirley.
The Romney campaign could mull commenting on some policy difference that emerges -- but that would depend on the specifics and if strategically it paid for them to go off message. Same goes if protests get ugly or it there is some serious security incident. It all depends on the situation, I'm told.
Obama's biggest diplomatic stake
The biggest diplomatic stakes for Obama are the package of issues surrounding Afghanistan, made more complex because of the election of a new French president.
Three announcements are expected at the Chicago NATO Summit: When in 2013 the combat mission in Afghanistan shifts to supporting the Afghan National Security Forces; how much support, financial and otherwise the "ANSF" will get from NATO partners; and agreement on a "roadmap" for NATO's post-2014 role in Afghanistan.
France's new president, Francois Hollande -- a Socialist -- will be sworn in on
MondayTuesday. He campaigned on a platform to pull out French combat troops by the end of 2012.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Chicago NATO Summit on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon was asked by committee chair Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about Hollande.
Obama at the last NATO Summit -- in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010 -- got the Afghanistan partners to agree to the 2014 timetable, Gordon noted.
"The French assure us that they are committed to our common success in Afghanistan, and I'm sure we'll find a way forward that ensures that common success. All I can do is speak to our own view, which is that this principle of 'in together, out together' remains critical," Gordon said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has much more at stake in the summit -- as Obama's former chief of staff, he grabbed the Summit, seeing it as a terrific opportunity to showcase Chicago. But he neglected to get buy-in from rank-and-file Chicagoans who see the inconveniences more than the advantages.
Emanuel has just one portfolio for the NATO Summit as host mayor. Though he once did while in the White House, Emanuel this week doesn't have to worry about the future of NATO, transatlantic security, ballistic missiles, Russia, free and fair elections in Afghanistan and how to make NATO allies take on their fair share of financial responsibilities and spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
Obama wanted the summit to be in Chicago in part because he wanted to show off for foreign leaders a city that relishes it diversity -- with almost every ethnic group that is part of NATO and its partners.
The last U.S. NATO Summit was in 1999; this is the first outside of Washington.
"In addition to the opportunity to showcase one of our nation's great cities, our hosting of the summit in Chicago is a tangible symbol of the importance of NATO to the United States. It is also an opportunity to underscore to the American people the continued value of this alliance to security challenges we face today," Gordon said at the Senate hearing.
Emanuel, on the other hand, wanted the summit to drum up business for Chicago.
My thought is Emanuel far more than Obama owns the summit if things go wrong -- and will likely bear the brunt even though the Secret Service is taking the lead coordinating security.
Emanuel will find it harder to change the subject if there are horrible demonstrations. Obama, working off a national and global stage -- will be able to move on if all that goes wrong are protests.
"Foreign policy in the minds of the American people right now is not nearly as important as it has been in past elections," Brookings Institution scholar William Galston told me. "... They are focused almost exclusively on the economy."
Former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley noted when we talked that demonstrations at world summits "are not unique to Barack Obama or to America today.
"Demonstrations happen every time there is a big gathering now of any leaders of the world anywhere," Daley said.
I asked Daley if the fact the summit is in hometown Chicago raises the stakes for Obama.
He said no. "Just cause it was his hometown people would say, 'boy, he could not control his home therefore we are not going to vote for him as president.' ... I don't see it. ... Obviously, it wouldn't help. But I don't see the American people holding him responsible for what may or may not happen by demonstrators who come from all over the country and all over the world to the city."