The last time President Obama made a late schedule change to travel to Copenhagen, the gamble failed badly: Despite a spirited speech, he returned empty-handed as his hometown of Chicago lost the contest to host the 2016 Olympics.
But late Friday afternoon, the White House repeated the gamble. Less than two months since their last Copenhagen debacle, the president’s staff moved his plan for travel to the Danish capital back a week—from the start of the U.N. climate talks, to the end of the tortured process.
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It could turn out to be another reckless wager risking the president’s prestige. But the White House is betting this one turns out differently. Obama’s aides seem confident that several months of patient diplomacy is about to pay off.
The mood inside the West Wing late Friday was cautiously, but palpably, optimistic about securing a Copenhagen deal. By pushing back Obama’s arrival date, the president’s aides have significantly recalculated the risks involved in the talks. A summit that seemed, just a week ago, doomed to failure is suddenly suffused with a burst of hope.
• Climate Showdown: A User’s GuideThe initial plan allowed for Obama to leave early if it looked like the talks were heading for deadlock. That scenario seemed fraught—raising the very real prospect that close on the heels of the widely criticized Asia trip, the president could once again travel abroad only to return home empty-handed. But as of late Friday, the mood shifted; a deal once considered out of reach might now be in sight.
The details of such an accord remain elusive at this hour. And any climate deal coming out of Copenhagen is likely to be seen by environmentalists as an inadequate disappointment. But by the same token, any agreement will be hailed as a significant change from the deadlock that marked the Bush era. It could also change the complexion of the debate over whether Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize he’s slated to accept next week in Oslo.
So what changed?
While the Washington press corps and much of the country was obsessing over the party crashers and Tiger Woods’ transgressions, the White House was quietly building momentum toward a deal. Obama returned home from his much-maligned Asia trip to announce specific targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—pledging to cut them 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. China followed with pledges of its own. While the cameras were trained on the Salahis, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were carrying on off-air talks. The results: India promised to cut carbon intensity (relative to India’s economic growth) by 20 to 25 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade.
The second step came among the richer nations this week, in Obama’s face-to-face sessions with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, as well as his phone calls with the British, German, and French leaders. Together, they negotiated an arrangement they hope will effectively silence the complaints of the poorer countries of the developing world, who could still stymie any deal in Copenhagen.
Their offer: $10 billion a year by 2012 to help developing countries deal with and adapt to climate change. The promised cash amounts to a big boost in development aid, and was justified by the White House on humanitarian and security grounds to mitigate the impact of climate change.
The aid also represents a dramatic effort to secure the support of smaller, less-wealthy countries in Copenhagen. Those nations form the G-77 group of developing countries, an unwieldy and unpredictable bloc currently chaired by the government of Sudan.
A summit that seemed, just a week ago, doomed to failure is suddenly suffused with a burst of hope.
For all the optimism, the risks of a Copenhagen collapse remain real. At the same time, the White House cannot afford to invest too much attention on yet another foreign-policy challenge—so close on the heels of the Afghan speech—while most Americans are focused on the still-weakened state of the U.S. economy.
After this week’s jobs summit and a surprising decline in the unemployment rate, Obama’s aides are determined not to let this month’s European travel eclipse a focus on U.S. jobs.
So the president will deliver a speech on the economy before departing for Oslo next week. And during the Copenhagen talks, the administration will highlight the presence of American businesses that seek to profit from—and create jobs in—the clean-energy economy that Obama hopes to jump-start.
When the president returned from Asia two weeks ago, many pundits panned the trip as an epic failure that effectively doomed the climate talks. One Politico headline read: How Copenhagen Died During Obama’s Asia Trip. Now Obama hopes he can resurrect Copenhagen before Christmas, and enjoy not one but two victory laps in Europe.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.