President Barack Obama said he moved the Group of Eight summit from his adopted hometown of Chicago to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for a “more casual backdrop,” not because of security concerns.
“I always have confidence in Chicago being able to handle security issues,” he said in response to a question at a White House news conference today. “We know how to deal with a crowd.”
The White House announced the surprise change yesterday, which was unusual because it is so close to the scheduled May 18 start date for an event that brings together leaders of the world’s industrial nations. The summits are planned as much as a year in advance and the Chicago venue was announced last June.
“Somebody pointed out that I hadn’t had any of my counterparts who I’ve worked with now for three years up to Camp David,” he said today.
Rachel Bronson, vice president for studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, one of two partners on the Chicago Host Committee, said the group only learned of the change after the White House made the announcement.
“We’re disappointed,” she said in an interview. “There was a lot of concern that it was coming here because of protests and now there’s concern that it’s not coming here.”
Chicago NATO Meeting
A meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was planned in tandem with the G-8 summit will still be held in Chicago on May 20-21, Obama said. The G-8 leaders will travel to Chicago after two days at Camp David, which in a wooded area of the Catoctin Mountains about 62 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Washington.
Obama said the G-8 summit “tends to be a more informal setting in which we talk about a wide range of issues in a pretty intimate way.”
Lori Healey, the host committee’s executive director, played down the loss of the G-8 meeting. She didn’t mention the G-8 by name and said: “We are honored to be the first major American city to host a NATO summit and look forward to showcasing Chicago to the world.”
Jennifer Martinez, press secretary for the host committee, said the committee learned of the switch from the mayor’s office earlier yesterday. She said the move “has minimal impact on our program” because so many of its events are focused on the NATO summit.
Martinez said members of the host committee and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau still plan to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels later this month to showcase Chicago food and culture.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s chief of staff until October 2010 when he left to run for the office, released a statement yesterday wishing Obama “and the other leaders well at the G-8 meeting at Camp David.” Chicago looks “forward to hosting the NATO summit,” which he called “a tremendous opportunity to showcase Chicago to the world.”
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, said the president speaks regularly with Emanuel “and consulted with him on his decision.”
The G-8 is made up of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia.
The May gathering will be the first trip to the U.S. for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin since he won the country’s presidential election on March 4.
Obama said “the weather should be good that time of year” and he said the summit will “give me a chance to spend time with Mr. Putin, the new Russian president. And from there we will then fly to Chicago.”
After building a warm relationship with Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, Obama needs to spend time and energy building bridges with Putin, said Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It’s important for Obama to establish some personal relationship and personal chemistry with Vladimir Putin,” said Kuchins, who said Obama got a “cool reception” when he met with Putin during a 2009 Moscow visit.
Past G-8 summits have sometimes been in secluded settings, including the 2004 meeting at Sea Island, Georgia, and the 2010 summit in Muskoka, a vacation resort in Ontario.