Gold-Medal Campaigning

How Obama and Romney Will Try to Leverage the Olympics

As the Olympics kick off in London, both candidates will try to link their campaigns to the image of America at its medal-winning best, says Daniel Stone.

Leslie E. Kossoff, Pool / Getty Images

Finally, a respite for both the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns. The Olympics begin this weekend in London, and both sides will be granted a reprieve from swing-state campaign trips, surprise visits to local diners, and daily hammering on insta-issues. Television cameras will focus across the pond, and for 17 days, both candidates’ latest movement won’t lead every news broadcast or front page.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll be taking time off. The Olympics are a time of intense patriotism for every competing country, America included. And as standard-bearers for the old Stars and Stripes rack up medals at the London Games, both Romney and Obama have sketched out intricate strategies to be associated with images of the U.S.A. at its best.

The Romney campaign, dogged by weeks of attacks on the candidate’s personal finances, is eager to turn the page with an overseas trip focused on the Republican’s would-be foreign policy. In a trip timed to coincide with the Games' beginnings, the former Olympics executive will appear at the opening ceremonies Friday evening in London, after a day of meetings with top British government ministers and opposition leaders. He has already scored an interview in London with Brian Williams of NBC, which is carrying the Games.

The strategy behind the trip is simple. Romney’s team has privately mused about the boost Obama got in 2008 during a trip to Berlin, where Obama spoke in front of Berlin’s Victory Column to 200,000 screaming Germans. The scene made him look adored. And judged by polling at the time, he also looked presidential.

Romney is then planning to visit Israel and Poland—a pair of countries, according to Romney, that “shares our love of liberty as well as the fortitude to defend it.” All are opportunities for pensive photo-ops, but perhaps none more than Israel, a country whose survival is highly valued by American Jews and evangelicals. Trust in Romney among both groups has slumped compared with 2008, something that a well-photographed visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem might be able to fix.

Romney will give speeches in all three countries, at each port critiquing President Obama’s foreign policy and priorities abroad. The ground will be ripe, especially after Obama’s gaffe in May when he referred to “Polish death camps” during World War II, a statement that deeply offended the Polish government and that the White House later withdrew as a “misstatement.” Romney is also expected to point out that Obama has yet to visit Israel as president. (The White House responds that Obama’s commitment to Israel has been clear, that he visited as a candidate in 2008, and that he has welcomed top Israeli government officials to the White House many times since taking office. Officials also say he’ll visit Israel during his second term.)

Obama’s Olympics effort began last week, when he attended several exhibition basketball games in Washington and gave a reported pep talk to a handful of London-bound athletes. Seeking to avoid attacks that he’s distracted from creating U.S. jobs, Obama won’t attend the Games in London, sending his wife instead to lead a delegation of top U.S. officials. Obama will remain in the U.S., spending some time traveling on the campaign trail and other days at home working, all while enjoying what may be his only real downtime before the campaign revs up in earnest next month.

Obama’s relationship with the Games has been rocky before, especially in 2009, when he traveled to Copenhagen to make a last-minute push to bring the Olympics to Chicago in 2016. After they were awarded to Rio de Janeiro instead, Obama ended up appearing as if he were unable to close the deal.

Romney’s tour of Britain undoubtedly will play on the candidate’s former role as the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee during the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, which Romney claims to have salvaged after their planning was plagued by poor management and unbalanced books. The Obama campaign has targeted that period of Romney’s career, casting doubts about his concurrent role as the head of Bain Capital, which invested in several companies that shipped jobs overseas. One downside of Romney’s trip, however, will be the focus on one of his wife’s horses, Rafalca, that will be competing in the dressage events, a sport often noted for its heavily skewed popularity among wealthy people.

In the currency of media attention, it’s Romney’s week that appears to be the more competitive, assuring that voters back home will see images of a suited, smiling GOP candidate thoughtfully discussing America’s interests abroad. The images are enough to have made the White House and Chicago campaign headquarters concerned. When Obama spoke in Berlin in 2008, he largely undercut the sitting U.S. president and appeared authoritative and in charge. Obama’s team is hoping that Romney doesn’t repay the favor.