Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Olympics Loss: Advantage Obama?

The schadenfreude visited upon President Obama after the United States was eliminated from consideration for the 2016 Olympic Games was a sadly astonishing thing. From almost the moment Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games, the long knives in the conservative media were out in force.

The staff of the Weekly Standard is said to have erupted in cheers; the same thing happened at a meeting of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity when Chicago’s bid to host the Games went down to defeat.

In our culture’s mad embrace of Victory at All Costs, the loss by the United States has been expressed as a personal loss to the president, a defeat that diminishes his brand and that of the nation. Obama had skin in the game; he lived in and was deeply inspired by Chicago; the city was the hothouse where his talent for community organizing flourished; much of his staff are former residents of the Windy City. Losing the bid for the Games had to sting.

But in ways that haven’t fully evolved yet, the U.S. loss in its bid for the 2016 Games may be one of the best things that could happen to Obama.

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There’s no escaping the populist power of something the president said after Rio won the Games. “I believe it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States of America,” he said. Right there, and in ways his critics (flag lapel pins in place) don’t understand or won’t acknowledge, the president burnished his patriotic street cred.

That credo, reflecting his efforts in Copenhagen on behalf of this country, speals for itself. It reflects a nationalistic pride that will be hard for conservatives and extremists to spin into something alien and unwelcome.

It’s hard to imagine how the Republicans could have outflanked themselves on patriotism; that used to be their stock in trade, their brand-name product. But right now, as they cheer a national defeat, the Republicans arrayed against Obama in Congress and the right-wing media and elsewhere look downright un-American by comparison.

“Man oh man oh man, the worst day of Obama’s presidency,” cackled talk-radio windbag Rush Limbaugh. “Folks, the ego has landed!” CNN’s Glenn Beck broke the news to his radio listeners, calling it “so sweeet!”

Never mind the boost a win for Chicago would have meant for jobs, infrastructure repair, the construction industry and the overall state economy. Never mind the Zogby poll that found that 84 percent of Americans supported the Chicago bid. The conservative talking points were enough: Obama went down in flames. It’s no wonder the GOP is battling a growing popular narrative that it’s the Party of No. That narrative of Republican obstructionism may be hard to conveniently overcome next year.

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Ironically enough, the Olympics loss works for Obama in a counter-intuitive way: it reveals that human side of a major world leader, the major world leader, someone who can’t always move mountains despite his best efforts. There’s a humanizing aspect to defeat, one we don’t look at often in a culture that prides itself on winning.

The president knows there’s no shame in making the concerted, principled effort on behalf of something bigger than oneself. It’s not a matter of pity or a maudlin embrace of the “lovable loser.” It’s a recognition that in any field of competition, there are more of the defeated than there are the victorious. The great sportswriter Roger Kahn once observed: “There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.”

President Obama (a White Sox fan) understands that. So do the millions of everyday people who elected him last year, and the 84 percent of Americans who supported him last week.

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