- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UPDATED:

COPENHAGEN — Michelle Obama didn’t waste any time impressing International Olympic Committee members.

As the first lady walked through the hotel lobby Wednesday, she spotted IOC member Nicole Hoevertsz, who only a day earlier had been appointed permanent secretary of Aruba’s Council of Ministers.

“She said, ‘Congratulations on your new appointment.’ She already knew,” Ms. Hoevertsz said. “That was a very nice detail.”

Mrs. Obama arrived here Wednesday to lend her support to Chicago’s efforts to win the 2016 Summer Games. As head of Chicago’s delegation — and her husband’s representative until he arrives Friday — she plans to meet with as many IOC members as possible to try to persuade them to pick her hometown over Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.

“I’m so happy to be here, so excited,” Mrs. Obama said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not taking anything for granted, so I’m going to go talk to some voters.”

President Obama has been an ardent supporter of the bid since he was a U.S. senator, and he’s been working the phones in recent weeks. But when it looked as if the health care debate might keep him in Washington, he asked his wife to go to Copenhagen to meet with IOC members.

And there are few people better to sell Chicago’s bid than Mrs. Obama.

Funny, gracious and incredibly accomplished, she’s one of the few people who can rival her husband’s popularity. She also knows the neighborhoods where the games would be, having grown up on the South Side of Chicago and lived just a short walk from the planned Olympic stadium before moving to Washington.

“Chicago is a wonderful host city,” Mrs. Obama said, “with great people, wonderful facilities. The hospitality is like no other.”

She’ll do her best to show that hospitality over the next two days. Chicago 2016 has a two-room suite at the Marriott, the official IOC hotel, and the first lady has a “pretty lengthy” schedule of one-on-one meetings with IOC members Wednesday and Thursday, said Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser and former vice chair of Chicago 2016.

Pictures of Chicago and its planned venues decorate the warm, bright rooms of the suite, with one wall entirely covered by a photo of the picturesque lakefront — where most of Chicago’s venues would be clustered. The white leather furniture is comfortable and inviting, the perfect spot for a chat.

And some lobbying.

“It’s a little taste of Chicago, right here in Copenhagen,” Ms. Jarrett said. “Our goal is this: We don’t take a single vote for granted. We are going to work as we have over the course of the last three-plus years in these last couple of days to continue to advocate on why Chicago is absolutely the most spectacular city in the world to host these games.”

Although IOC President Jacques Rogge has taken great pains to say heads of state aren’t expected to attend, their presence has been instrumental in recent votes. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is widely credited for tipping the 2012 vote in London’s favor, spending two days doing one-on-one meetings with IOC members in his hotel suite.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, then the president, did much the same thing two years later, when Sochi won the 2014 Olympics.

Ms. Jarrett met with Mr. Blair last week to get advice on making the best use of these last few days, and while she won’t divulge details, she said his input was “extremely helpful.”

Of course, the Obamas and Ms. Jarrett have a little experience with elections, too. The president’s campaign prized itself on getting to know voters and finding out what mattered to them. By the time election day came, voters felt as if they knew Mr. Obama and that he truly cared about their interests.

If Mrs. Obama’s brief stroll through the lobby was any indication, they’re using the same strategy here.

When she spotted Austin Sealy, an IOC member from Barbados, she shook his hand and said, “Good to see you.” She knew about Ms. Hoevertsz’s new job — something most people in Aruba probably aren’t even aware of — and happily accepted a pin. When David Robinson, one of the original Dream Teamers and a member of the U.S. delegation here, went to introduce himself, she grinned and said: “I know who you are! Another Robinson. I tell people we’re related.”

Mrs. Obama’s maiden name is Robinson.

“Our first lady enjoys extraordinary popularity around the world,” Ms. Jarrett said. “It’s a big part of why the president asked her to be a part of our team. In addition to which, she was born and raised in Chicago, not far from where some of the venues will be, and she knows and loves the city.”

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