When Barack Obama arrives in Copenhagen on Friday, he might be forgiven if he mistakes the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting for just another social call in his old Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. A number of the President's closest friends, biggest fundraisers and longtime political supporters will be making the trip as well.
Even before he committed to become the first U.S. President to attend such an event, the Chicago Olympic effort was already being substantially orchestrated by the group of people who are most responsible for supporting Obama's rise to the White House. And while the White House denies that the substantial overlap between Obama's personal and political network and the Chicago 2016 organizing committee played any role in his abrupt decision to reverse himself and attend the Olympic meeting in Denmark, the potential conflicts of interest have raised eyebrows.
Two of the 13-member board of directors for the Chicago 2016 committee who plan to attend the Copenhagen meeting, John W. Rogers Jr. and Marty Nesbitt, are close Obama friends, having worked for his presidential campaign as a member of the campaign's national finance committee and campaign treasurer, respectively. Several other friends and important campaign advisers, including investment banker James Reynolds Jr. and Hyatt hotel heir Penny Pritzker, are expected to attend the Copenhagen meeting as well. Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser and close family friend, quit the Chicago 2016 board when she formally joined the White House, but she has promised "unprecedented" government support for the Games.
"To say Barack and Michelle and others like Rahm [Emmanuel] aren't more interested in Chicago than Cincinnati just isn't credible," says Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago. "It's just like saying that Obama wouldn't be more interested in his own daughters than two kids picked at random at the Sidwell Friends School."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs went to great pains on Monday to assert that Obama saw the trip to Copenhagen as an official duty, not a personal one. "If it had been Los Angeles, I think the notion that the President would have done less because it was a different U.S. city just doesn't hold a lot of water," Gibbs said. He later added that none of Obama's friends would be flying to Copenhagen aboard Air Force One, though at least one might return on the official presidential jet.
Though Gibbs spoke of the economic impact of the Games as a boon for the entire nation, outside analysts expect most of the economic benefits to be focused in Chicago and the surrounding area, where many of Obama's biggest boosters are heavily invested in the real estate and tourism industry. Estimates for the economic stimulus of the Games vary widely, from $4.4 billion in an independent study by Anderson Economic Group to $22.5 billion, according to a number circulated by the Chicago 2016 committee. Yet if the cost of the Games exceeds expectations, as happens with most Olympics, local taxpayers may find themselves saddled with much of the expense.