It came a week late, but President Obama did win the gold. Last Friday, the International Olympic Committee stiffed him. Today, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He should probably leave his schedule open next Friday, because apparently anything can happen.
It was the second time in three years that the peace prize went to someone trying to create a new international climate. In 2007, Al Gore shared the prize for his efforts to combat global warming. Explaining this year’s selection, the committee credited Obama not for concrete accomplishments but for atmospheric ones. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”
Having worked at Time magazine when it occasionally named a Person of the Year who evoked a similar “Huh?” reaction, I recognize this language: It is the sound of words groaning for a rationale. The committee can, of course, pick whomever it wants. But in his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”
“Shall have done,” seems a tricky piece of language to write around. This makes the committee’s statement sounds more like a wish list. It’s not that Obama has done nothing. It’s that so much about his presidency is preliminary. (I’m not counting the beer summit.) Other recipients—Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, and Lech Walesa—seem more aptly to hit the “have done” mark. Others who might not be household names, like Muhammad Yunus, make sense on inspection.
On the other hand, Obama may fit the bill more than some other recipients. At least he hasn’t actively been engaged in making warfare, as were previous recipients Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat. Then again, Obama is considering whether to send more troops into Afghanistan, one of America’s two wars.
Obama took office less than 10 days before the Feb. 1 deadline for Nobel Prize nominations. It was not a weak field. This year there were 205 submissions, more than ever. Obama was not a part of the pregame speculation, which had centered on human rights activists in China and Afghanistan and political figures in Africa. Human rights activists in China must be particularly miffed, since the Obama administration has downplayed China’s bad human rights record.
The committee of five Norwegians has a more relaxed standard than Saturday Night Live, which recently poked fun at Obama for his lack of accomplishments, and Arizona State University, which declined to award him an honorary degree because of his inexperience.
Obama is not the first president, sitting or former, to win the award. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt won the award. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson did. In 2002, Jimmy Carter took home the prize. Today’s announcement may test the empathy of Bill Clinton, who has devoted his post-presidency to global health and peace initiatives.
The news came as such a shock that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer with one word: “Wow.” Gibbs phoned the president at 6 a.m. to give him the news.
The award has essentially been given for the president’s speechmaking ability, which means his political handlers made the right call by sending him to Berlin during last year’s election. The prize highlights the juxtaposition between the 44th and 43rd presidents: from a verbally challenged leader who seemed at time to revel in shunning world opinion to a wordsmith who came to office promising to embrace the globe.
The award will feed into the automatic sorting mechanism of politics. Conservatives who scoffed that Obama’s Olympic defeat meant a drop in prestige should, by the same logic, herald this as an even greater spike in the same. They won’t, because no one gets a prize for consistency.
Other parties that benefit from the prize are the producers at Fox News, who now know what they’re going to talk about this weekend. Pundits win because the Nobel committee has validated the idea that speeches and atmospherics are really important. The award also offers the opportunity for all of us elites to do what we do best, which is miss how regular people might react. While we’re talking about how the Nobel committee has jumped the shark, some people might like that a president who they elected, in part, to improve America’s image in the world has been rewarded for it.
One debate will be whether Obama should turn down the prize, as Slate’s Mickey Kaus suggests. That would be a slap to the committee, but since awards are being given for atmospherics, let’s consider the atmospherics of such a move. Obama could easily write the justifying language: He’s honored and humbled but he has merely articulated the common aspirations of all mankind. As it is mankind’s global challenge, no one man can claim a prize with so much work left to be done. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. (Ben Rhodes and Jon Favreau could certainly find the language.)
In the quarters where his speechmaking and diplomatic flair are praised, such a performance will only enhance his reputation. His critics will be dumbfounded. The arrogance rap will fade. Obama would immediately become the favorite for next year’s Nobel Prize for Humility.