President Barack Obama is now en route to Copenhagen in an effort to sell Chicago as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. In the process, he may be selling Chicago down the river. Obama is joined arm-in-arm with his wife Michelle on one side and Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago political machine on the other. Michelle Obama says, "My father was disabled, and I think what it would have meant for him to see someone in his shoes compete. Kids need to see that and that needs to be celebrated just as much, if not more." This seems more like an argument to support the Paralympics (a tremendous event) but that's beside the point. Michelle Obama should perhaps realize that if the Olympics had come to Chicago when she was a young girl on Chicago's working class south side, her home may have been torn down to make way for an Olympic facility. No word on how being out of house and home would have helped her disabled father.
Mayor Daley, rocking a 35 percent approval rating, says that the Games would be "a huge boost to our economy, raising it to a new level. The Games will help us recover sooner from the recession that still grips our nation and enable us to better compete in the global economy."
There is only one problem with this argument: the history of the Olympic Games almost without exception brands it as a lie. As Sports Illustrated's Michael Fish - an Olympic supporter - has written, "You stage a two-week athletic carnival and, if things go well, pray the local municipality isn't sent into financial ruin."
In fact, the very idea that Chicago could be an appropriate setting for the Olympics might have been hatched by Jon Stewart for a four-year supply of comedic fodder. To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft and police violence wherever they nest. Even without the Olympic Games, Chicago has been ground zero in the past decade for the destruction of public housing, political corruption raised to an art form, and police violence. Bringing the Olympics to this town would be like sending a gift basket filled with bottles of Jim Beam to the Betty Ford Clinic: over-consumption followed by disaster.
It's also difficult for Chicago residents to see how this will help their pocketbooks, given that Daley pledged to the International Olympic Committee that any cost overruns would be covered by taxpayers.
This is why a staggering 84 percent of the city opposes bringing the Games to Chicago if it costs residents a solitary dime. Even if the games were to go off without a hitch - which would happen only if the setting was lovely Shangri-La - not even half the residents would support hosting the Games.
The Obamas, former Chicago residents, should be standing with their city. Instead, we have the sight of Barack, Michelle, and Oprah trying to outmuscle Pele and Brazil for a place at the Olympic trough. The question is why. Maybe Obama wants the Olympic fairy dust enjoyed by Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles or Bill Clinton at the 1996 games in Atlanta. Or perhaps he is returning favor to the developers and other sundry connected people in the Windy City who will make out like bandits once the smoke has cleared. But his intentions are clear: he wants the glitz, glamour, and prestige of the games and he wants it for the Daley machine. What the people of Chicago want doesn't seem to compute.
But we shouldn't be surprised at this point that Obama is tin-eared to the concerns of Chicago residents. As Paul Krugman wrote Sept. 20 on the banker bonuses, "the administration has suffered more than it seems to realize from the perception that it's giving taxpayers' hard-earned money away to Wall Street." Shoveling taxpayers' money into the Olympic maw is no better, especially in these tough times.
No Games Chicago organizer Alison McKenna said to me, "I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because instead of putting money toward what people really need, money will be funneled to real estate developers who will be tearing down Washington Park and other important community resources. I oppose the Olympics coming to Chicago because the nonprofit child-welfare agency that I work for had to sustain budget cuts and layoffs, while Chicago has spent $48.2 million on the 2016 Olympic bid, as of July 2009."
There is an urgency to building resistance to these kinds of priorities. Right now, the right wing is shamelessly adopting populist rhetoric and the power of protest to sell an agenda of racism and fear wrapped in taxpayer protection. The big public voice against Obama's trip to Copenhagen has been the repellent RNC chief Michael Steele who believes, and this is hilarious, that "At a time of war and recession" Obama needs to stay home. It shouldn't be a scoundrel like Steele who represents a party of privatization and occupation who delivers that message. Now is the time to build a pole of attraction on the left for people furious at corporate greed amidst a recession. This needs to happen, and not just for the Windy City. It's about building a vibrant protest movement that believes in social justice not the rank divisiveness of the right. Obama likes to say that change comes from "outside Washington." It's time to take him at his word.