The White House defended President Obama’s trip to Denmark this week to promote Chicago’s bid for the Olympic Games, saying health care reform is in good enough shape for him to miss a couple of days.
“I think he believes he can do this and get back in time,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “He felt strongly and personally that he should go and make the case of the United States, and that’s what he’s going to do.”
Obama will lead a delegation that includes first lady Michelle Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Oprah Winfrey and others.
The International Olympic Committee on Friday will choose the site of the 2016 Summer Games. Also in contention are Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; Tokyo; and Madrid, Spain.
The president’s apparent last-minute decision to make the trip drew immediate criticism, including from some Republicans in Congress who accused him of getting distracted from health care, the economy, Iran and Afghanistan.
But both Obamas have shown a keen interest in European travel, making several trips since Obama became president to England, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and more.
The first lady earlier this year spent several days with daughters Sasha and Malia in Paris and London, breaking away from the president’s official schedule for some private, family adventure.
Obama’s relationships with some of his counterparts — notably British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — often appear only slightly more than cordial. But both Obamas have been embraced by European people and enjoy an effusive, celebrity-type status overseas.
The president less than two weeks ago said he would like to make the trip to Copenhagen, where the International Olympic Committee is meeting, but that his commitment to health care reform prevented it.
Since then, the administration has sounded much like the fictional Dane Hamlet — going back and forth on whether Obama might join the first lady after all.
In announcing the Obamas’ plans to travel, the administration stressed the economic benefits of hosting the Olympics, the quick schedule of Obama’s approximately 24-hour trip and the improved state of the health care reform effort.
Obama will be the first sitting president to directly address the IOC.
Even so, the trip is a risky one for Obama. Chicago is not considered a front-runner for the Games, although the president’s appearance before the committee may help the city’s chances.
Michelle Obama, who spoke to reporters at the White House, acknowledged some of the criticism surrounding the president’s trip.
“Look, you’re darned if you do and you’re darned if you don’t,” she said. “These last days are really important. ... People are making up their minds at the very end.”
Obama represented Illinois in the Senate, and the first family still has a house in Chicago, which the Hawaiian-born president regards as his hometown.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the president is enormously proud of Chicago and would be enormously proud of the city hosting the bid,” Gibbs said.
The first family’s European adventures
As a candidate, President Obama toured Europe and gave a major speech in Germany last year. Since taking office, he and first lady Michelle Obama have traveled extensively, but they have a particular fondness for Europe.
» L’Aquila, Italy, July 2009: The president attends the Group of Eight summit, first lady Michelle Obama’s wardrobe meticulously documented by Italian media.
» London, June 2009: Michelle Obama takes daughters Sasha and Malia sightseeing at Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament and other spots, to celebrate Sasha’s eighth birthday.
» Paris, June 2009: The first lady and her two daughters take some vacation time in France, visiting Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and more. The president is in France for a ceremony at Normandy.
» Weimar, Germany, June 2009: President Obama attends an event with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others marking the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
» Prague, Czech Republic, April 2009: The president attends a European Union meeting, delivers a speech on nuclear disarmament.
» Strasbourg, France, April 2009: President Obama attends a NATO meeting; first lady Michelle Obama appears with her French counterpart Carla Bruni to rapturous coverage in European media.
» London, April 2009: President Obama attends the Group of 20 world leaders summit, causes a sensation with the first lady when they meet with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.