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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Obama Wraps Himself in Olympic Glory


WASHINGTON - One of the two major candidates for president actually ran an Olympics, made a point of visiting this year's Games in London and has a wife with a personal stake in one of the events.

And yet the candidate who cannot stop talking about the gymnasts, swimmers and soccer players on the campaign trail nearly everywhere he goes these days is the one who by his own admission “can barely do a somersault.”

From Ohio to Florida to Virginia, President Obama has been wrapping himself in Olympic glory, giving shout-outs to the winners and slipping in that he just happened to call some of them personally to congratulate them on their medals. A little Olympic name-dropping never hurt a candidate, particularly when it allows you lead a crowd in chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A.” And one of the perks of being president is being the country's official cheerleader in chief every four years.

“Obviously, I know that all of you have been spending most of this week rooting for our unbelievable athletes in London,” Mr. Obama told a crowd of supporters in Stamford, Conn., on Monday night. “On the flight over here, I've got to admit I was spending most of my time watching U.S. women's soccer. They won, by the way, 4 to 3.”

He went on to extract political meaning from the game.

“It's just an extraordinary reminder of the fact that even when we've got political differences, when it comes to our love of this country and the incredible people who represent us, we are unified,” he said. “And it's a very gratifying feeling during the course of a political season, where sometimes the fact that we are unified around so many important things gets hidden.”

That may be a presidential thing to say but it is also carefully considered politics. One of the consistent attack lines against Mr. Obama has been that he is somehow not American enough, fr om the extreme conspiracy theories about his birth to the more conventional Republican criticism about his policies and supposed lack of faith in his country. His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who ran the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, titled his book “No Apology” to present Mr. Obama as someone who thinks the United States is just another nation like France or Greece.

Sensitive to the accusation, Mr. Obama this year has tried to compete in the chest-thumping over American exceptionalism. In his State of the Union address, he declared that “America is back” and said, “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about.”

Mr. Obama has reprised versions of that line in campaign speeches ever since, trying a form of political jujitsu by turning the Republicans' argument against them, painting their criticism of his policies as if they were defeatists t alking down America. While he does not claim that it is morning in America, he has tried to channel Ronald Reagan's famous optimism about America's future.

It is in that context that Mr. Obama has been associating himself with the likes of Michael Phelps and his colleagues. In Mansfield, Ohio, last week, the president highlighted two athletes from that state, Abby Johnston, the diver, and Justin Lester, the wrestler. In Leesburg, Va., the next day, he made sure to hail “Virginia's own Gabby Douglas” before leading the crowd in the familiar “U-S-A” chants.

Mr. Obama also uses the moments to humanize himself, declaring with a sense of wonder in his voice that there is no way he could do the things the young athletes do. “I couldn't walk across that balance beam,” much less jump and flip, he said in Ohio. “I can barely do a somersault,” he said in Virginia. “Unbelievable.”

As it happens, Mr. Romney personally went to this year's Games in Lo ndon and his wife's horse competed again on Tuesday at the Olympic team equestrian dressage competition. But the visit was marred when he raised questions about whether London was ready for the Olympics, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron and overshadowing Mr. Romney's own longstanding love for the Games.

Asked about it afterward, Mr. Romney made sure to praise this year's events. “I was there for two days; the Games were carried out without a hitch so far as I'm able to tell,” he told ABC News. “Despite the challenges that any organizing committee faces, they were able to organize games that had been so far so good, picture perfect.”

Since returning to the United States, though, he has not said much about the Olympics at his campaign events.

Still, the Olympics proves to be one area where Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney do agree. Last week, a Romney spokesman said the candidate favors exempting Olympians from paying taxes on the value of t heir medals, as proposed in a bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.

On Monday, an Obama spokesman said the president would sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.

That, at least, would be easier to do than a somersault.