By Sam Youngman - 10/02/09 12:01 AM EDT
President Barack Obama, in Copenhagen, Denmark, to pitch Chicago as the site for the 2016 Olympics, is sending two Cabinet members to the Windy City on an urgent mission to start repairing the problem of youth violence there.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former head of the Chicago public school system, will meet school officials, students and community members Wednesday to “talk about the issues of school violence and youth violence,” according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Republicans have faulted Obama, saying he should be focused on national issues. “Listen, I think it’s a great idea to promote Chicago but he’s the president of the United States, not the mayor of Chicago,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this week. Other foreign heads of government also personally lobby for Olympic bids.
Obama decided to send Holder and Duncan to Chicago after a video showing the beating death of an honors student circulated widely on the Internet and gained widespread attention.
The killing of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, who was caught up in a melee involving dozens of teenage boys fighting with fists and two-by-fours while walking home from school last week, has gripped the city of Chicago and much of the nation.
The killing has become a bigger issue because of this week’s Olympic bid. The matter reached the Oval Office on Wednesday when Obama discussed the killing with his advisers. And Gibbs on Thursday indicated Obama was prepared, if necessary, to defend the safety of Chicago, his adopted hometown, during a presentation and a question and answer session with members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Denmark.
Gibbs, who described the video as “chilling,” said Obama has “full confidence in the safety of the city and will be prepared to talk about that if that were a question.”
He said he did not know if Obama had viewed the videotape. “Obviously, it’s of great concern to the president, as somebody who’s lived in Chicago, but would and should be a concern for every American,” Gibbs said of Albert’s killing. “This isn’t a Chicago problem,” said Gibbs, who called youth violence “a problem throughout our country.”
Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid are competing against Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Oddsmakers view Chicago as the favorite, with Rio de Janeiro running slightly behind.
It has become common in recent years for heads of state to make the final pitches for their nations, and the visits are now seen as important for securing a victory in the competition.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has aggressively courted support for Rio’s bid and will be in Copenhagen.
First Lady Michelle Obama attended the opening ceremonies of the IOC meeting on Thursday with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Oprah Winfrey, whose media empire is based in Chicago.
Obama will give a presentation to the IOC members early Friday morning and then answer questions with other members of the U.S. delegation. A decision is expected by mid-day Friday.
Gibbs said the president believes “it’s important for him to talk directly with voting members of the IOC and make the strong case for the American side.”
Michelle Obama grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Roseland, the neighborhood where Albert died, is on the far south side of the city.
She said on Thursday that she would tell IOC members how much it would mean for Chicago to host the Olympics to kids “who grew up in Cabrini,” according to The Associated Press. Cabrini-Green is a housing project on Chicago’s South Side that was notorious for gang violence and poverty.
“It does something to a kid when they can feel that energy and power up close and personal,” she told the AP. “And for some kids in our communities and our city, around the nation, around the world, they can never dream of being that close to such power and opportunity. So that’s what excites me most about bringing the Games to Chicago.”
Chicago plans to have venues for Olympic events on the north and south sides of the city, which much of the activity taking place near the waterfront of Lake Michigan.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele criticized Obama’s trip, though former Massachusetts GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, who headed the 2002 Olympic effort for Salt Lake City, has said the president was right to go to Copenhagen.
Then-United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair and thenFrench President Jacques Chirac both traveled to Singapore in 2005 to try to win over IOC members for London and Paris, which vied to host the 2012 Games. London was picked in an upset over Paris that took four ballots, and Blair received credit for days of personal lobbying.
It is unclear whether perceptions of violence in Chicago could undermine the city’s bid to host the Olympics. Rio de Janeiro also has a reputation for violence.
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson on Thursday described the neighborhood where Albert was killed as a “war zone;” according to the Chicago Tribune.
“You don’t have to be guilty to be killed in a war zone, the innocent die,” Jackson told the Tribune.