There is nothing like a preemie Nobel Peace Prize to set the polity ablaze. I'm sure Barack Obama smelled the political smoke when awakened with the news this morning that the Nobel committee had essentially named him "Worldwide Statesman Most Likely to Succeed" - and White House sources tell me his initial reaction went pretty much like this: "Whaaaaa?!"
The President is a smart enough politician to understand he'd been slapped into a pretty neat box by those well-meaning Europeans spending down the old arms maker's endowment. Despite calls to contrary, he had to accept the Nobel - anything less would have been far less than gracious. So he handled it pretty well, with statements like this one:
To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.
Exactly right. Obama clearly didn't deserve the Nobel, which should be awarded not for aspiration but for real accomplishment. But it's not Barack Obama's fault that the Nobel Committee went goofy. The White House was entirely blind-sided by the announcement, understanding perfectly well the day-to-day challenge of transforming the President's inspiring electoral victory into the kind of real change he promised for nigh on two years on the stump. Even hard-core Obama supporters like Gara LaMarche spoke plainly:
I am delighted for any good thing that comes to Barack Obama, and
people need to look at this in terms of the sea change it represents in
international opinion about the U.S., but giving it for aspiration and
effort at such an early stage is, let's admit it, a bit weird.
Attention, Pulitzer Prize jury: I've sketched out the opening pages
of a novel I'm thinking of writing...
As Richard Kim wrote in The Nation, whose covers last year seemed permanently devoted to an iconic notion of the candidate, the committee's sentiments on the President's small body of work "are aspirational in my view. Obama doesn't deserve the prize, yet." The shorter version from Peter Beinart: "I like Barack Obama as much as the next liberal, but this is a farce."
Yet the natural reaction of some was to try and counter the predictably screeching hellwraiths on the right - "He's basically emasculating this country and they love it!" screamed Limbaugh - and perhaps the desire to rationalize the Nobel choice overcame common sense. It certainly pushed the DNC into throwing terrorism around lightly. There was a bit of strain in the reasoning. Some voices on the left actually stooped to point out that Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. hadn't yet witnessed the signing of the Voting Rights Act when he won
his Nobel, or that Bishop Desmond Tutu hadn't yet seen the formal end of
Apartheid. But those arguments diminish Obama by easy and simple
comparison; it does the President no favors to call to mind 1950s
Birmingham and 1980s Johannesburg in the context of his inspiring - but
hardly revolutionary - political career in Chicago.
I think the prize will stick to Obama, and not in a good way. Sure, you can observe that the Nobel committee was rewarding the passing of the neocon era and the end of a foreign policy run on arrogant think tank dreams of American "exceptionalism." But any thinking person knows it's too much, too soon. It puts an even brighter target of expectations on a President in his first year and on an Administration struggling to pass health care reform, sort out Afghanistan and put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. On his Philanthrocapitalism blog, the Economist's Matthew Bishop argued that President Obama should defer his acceptance:
At first glance, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama is absurdly premature. Beyond his fine words, it is hard to demonstrate conclusively that President Obama has yet added a net ounce of peace to the world, and although hopefully he will ultimately do so, the record of past US presidents, including well-intentioned fellows like Messrs Carter and Clinton, suggests that they do more for peace once they leave office.
The world may be happier with Obama than his predecessor, but it also appears to me that the Nobel machers were a little late to the big rally. It's like they showed up a day late for the blow-out party, ringing the front door and holding out a shiny gift to a bewildered host who's more than a bit hung over and already finished sweeping up the confetti. Like the rest of us here on Planet America, the New Yorker's George Packer has long since moved past the slogans, the balloons and all the glorious hoopla:
This seems like a prize for Europeans, not Americans, and I worry that at home it will damage him politically by reinforcing the notion that he is--and will be--a world icon rather than a successful President. I don't mind him being the former, but I most want him to be the latter.