President Obama and Mrs. Obama have done it again — demonstrating, that is, that personal appeal only goes only so far when it comes to public diplomacy and international relations.
The couple just about blew the Danish media away with their emotional and personal appeals for the 2016 Olympics to come to Chicago. “Top Grades for Obama” read the headline in the daily paper Berlingske Tidende, whose reporter had interviewed a communication expert who commended the duo for a synchronized performance of extraordinary elegance and eloquence.”They get a 10 on a scale of 1-10,” he said. President Obama spoke about his commitment as both president of the United States, and a sports fan. And Mrs.Obama brought up the case of her father, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, for whom sports remain a passion.
And yet, again, the appealing presidential couple achieved absolutely nothing. Chicago was eliminated in the very first round of voting, and the two cities remaining in the final round of selection were Rio and Madrid — of which Rio came away the winner. This should not exactly come as a surprise, given that the 2012 Olympics will be in London — after which the judges would likely look for a non-English-speaking location. Yet, it is surely an indication of the president’s confidence in his own personal appeal — and misplaced sense of priorities — that he made the trip in the midst of the health care battle and the critical impasse for U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan.
That the Obama appeal remains extraordinary is beyond doubt, even to the point of erasing any resentment over the enormous inconvenience the lightning short visit caused not just the population of Copenhagen, but also southern Sweden as well. Traffic closed down in Copenhagen, and over the bridge which connects Denmark to Sweden was as well.
Indeed the difference between the coverage of the visit to Denmark of President Obama and that of his predecessor President George W. Bush could hardly be greater. Mr. Bush, who actually spent his birthday there in 2005, and celebrated at a lunch with Queen Margrethe at her summer palace, was roundly denounced for the fact that highways had to be shut down for for his visit.
A pattern has by now established itself in President Obama’s record on public diplomacy, which is to say, an over reliance on the presidential image and appeal — and a failure to engage in diplomatic groundwork abroad or much needed interagency reform at home. The result is one humiliating snub after another — which seemingly go blissfully unnoticed by the White House.