The Promise (And Pitfalls?) Of Obama's Nobel Surprise

The political world awoke this morning to a collective, confused "What the..."  Bottom line: the pressure on President Obama to Get Things Done has just been ratcheted up by several orders of magnitude.

Let's stipulate that the response from political conservatives in America is going to be predictable and uninteresting. (The Swedes have a habit of awarding the prize to Democrats that most provoke the ire of conservative partisans. And to Yasser Arafat.)

Domestically -- well, it's easy to overthink this: figuring out how to graciously accept one of the world's most coveted honors is not the worst dilemma to have, and in a sense, the Nobel committee was recognizing and validating the identity that Americans -- a bare majority of them, yes -- held on election night: a collective rejection of the past eight years, through democratic means, and the act of choosing a president who stood for something completely different -- a rejuvenation.

The start of the administration coincided with the onset of a deep economic recession, which usually correlates with a deepening anxiety about American identity, a return to isolationism, a mistrusting of the the way the world evaluates the country. For months, the Obama administration has been trying to keep America out of that gutter, at least on an elite level. Politically, independents who distrust Obama's policies and yet like his style -- the way he fits into our historical conception of the presidency, the way he inhabits the values of pragmatism, the way he is restoring America's credibility in the world -- will be just fine with the newest Nobel laureate.

Most salient will be, I think, the way that the White House handles this unexpected...pleasure?.....given that, in a way, it has the potential to be interpreted as a reward for the type of hubris that this president, with his extraordinary self confidence, is prone to.  This is an interesting communications challenge to have: peace prize recipients seem like they ought to be humble and modest; Obama is many things, but he's not terribly self-effacing.  Winning the award is one thing; figuring out how to use it to accomplish things, to pressure Iran, to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the final table, to bring the bloodshed in Darfur to a close -- this is what Obama needs to figure out.

"It says that he is an inspirational leader," one of Obama's closest advisers e-mails about the award, "but more important it signals the value of the cause, and [the] real opportunity for peace [and] progress that lies ahead."

And as irritating as this may be to European diplomats, regaining some stature at the United Nations, or among the peoples of the world, even with this aspirational prize, is probably going to help the President internationally. It's one thing for the cognoscenti and perhaps other governments to allege that the Nobel Peace Prize has been devalued; it's quite another to assume that citizens of the world truly believe this. Will a majority of Americans be proud of their president? Will they be collectively skeptical?  (As in: I like the guy, but how is he like Nelson Mandela? And aren't there two wars on? And what about Twitter?) 

Sometimes, the public reacts independently of the media narrative; at others, the public follows the media narrative. The media will most likely try to find Republicans who are furious and sneery and Democrats who are wetting themselves -- an orthogonal path that doesn't clarify much and doesn't reflect the diversity of thought among at least Democrats, particularly those who don't think Obama really has turned the page on the Bush era.  Democratic partisans for once, will have fun taunting Republicans who aren't happy for Obama: 'why are you siding with the Taliban?' -- the Taliban having denounced the award, of course.

But, as Matthew Cooper points out, from a legislative standpoint, the Nobel Peace Prize is not going to impede the passage of health care reform, or today's push for a consumer finance regulatory agency, or most other parts of his domestic agenda. It's probably going to help.

The award citation suggests that Obama's statements and speeches, rather than his accomplishments, were meritorious. (Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, now a senior National Security Council official, gets the shout-out here, as does Jon Favreau, the president's chief speechwriter.)

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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