By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama’s Nobel Prize

obama_20091009I should be reading the papers and getting ready for class, but I just want to get this out there first. No doubt the topic will inspire a long string of comments, and probably a few of you will have more coherent thoughts than I do.

President Obama is a leader of extraordinary promise. I think he’s already accomplished a lot. His policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession. He’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president.

And, yes, his approach to foreign policy has combined pragmatism, cooperation and an orientation toward negotiation and peace that stands in stark contrast with the belligerent Bush-Cheney team. I’m also glad he’s rethinking his original desire to escalate in Afghanistan.

That said, I’m puzzled, to say the least, by his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Obama might well have been Nobel-worthy in a couple of years, depending on what he’s able to accomplish with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Iran and its nuclear aspirations, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess and with North Korea. And that’s assuming he can find willing negotiating partners.

For the Nobel committee to award its most prestigious honor to Obama at this early stage of his presidency, the members must have been thinking one of two things:

  • He deserves it for all sorts of symbolic reasons: he’s the first African-American president, he represents a clean break with George W. Bush and he’s reached out to the international community in a variety of ways.
  • He doesn’t really deserve it, but he should get it in order to give him ammunition (oops; bad word) against his critics and to provide some momentum to his peace-making efforts.

I don’t think either of those reasons are good enough.

Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. By contrast, I think Gore and especially Carter were very deserving recipients who received the honor on the basis of many years of hard work.

Many liberals are going to be thrilled that Obama won, although the early buzz on the left, based solely on my monitoring of Twitter, is that at least some liberals are as perplexed as I am.

Not that Obama is the worst selection ever. Certainly there have been much more undeserving recipients, such as Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. (Despite what some conservatives are claiming on Twitter, Adolf Hitler did not win the Nobel. Try looking it up, folks.)

Anyway — there you have it. Discuss among yourselves.

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Obama’s Nobel Prize (II)


  1. [I should be printing my paper for the class that you should be preparing for]

    I agree with your analysis of Obama’s presidency to-date, and was equally surprised when I heard this news. We can only hope that it gives him the momentum to accomplish what might truly be deserving of this Nobel Prize.

  2. Steve Stein

    I think it’s pretty silly. Over at the local liberal hangout BMG, many are suggesting he should decline. I agree.

    I guess it’s been a slow year for peace?

    • Dan Kennedy

      If he had any inkling it was coming, he should have tried to head it off. But it would be demented for him to decline. He should accept it with extreme humility.

  3. My first thought was, “why?” I mean, I voted for him but I can’t see anything he’s done at this point to further world peace. In fact, I’m a bit disappointed with him on a host of issues. I’m absolutely in favor of affirmative action but this is silly and patronizing. And honestly, I bet Obama would be the first to agree.

  4. It’s like the soft bigotry of no expectations. Just showing up for the job is enough. And I like Obama!

  5. Michael Pahre

    The Nobel Prizes in the arts and sciences are awarded for specific work or a body of work, but the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a mish-mash of accomplishments vs. promise vs. political messages.

    To some extent, a peace prize will nearly always be a political decision, since the committee is often awarding one idea or posture in a political confrontation and not the other. We so rarely have wars end with a handshake that you have to dig into the muck of human conflict and make a political statement.

    I think that peace prize committee was more awarding Obama and the American people for getting past race, but that they figured they couldn’t word it that way — or give the award to the 46% of the people who voted against him. So they settled on the diplomacy side for the text.

    One note: a person interviewed on the radio this morning said that Americans are too close to Obama politically to realize the broad extent of his impact (especially relative to Bush) internationally. We may be falling into that trap as we question the decision.

  6. Ok, guess I should stop dancing around this issue. You shouldn’t give the Nobel Peace Prize to someone because they’re black and they’re not Bush. That’s where this sense of hope and change comes from and Obama, frankly, had nothing to do with either of those things. He was born black, he was born not Bush. They’re facts of life, not accomplishments. It’s like they gave him the prize just for showing up and that’s wrong. And I think both Barack and Michelle Obama know it. It cheapens the accomplishments of the other African-Americans who’ve won the prize, like the Rev. Martin Luther King.

  7. TomW

    Michael, I agree completely with your last paragraph. We in the U.S. are so focused on our perception of Obama that we fail to see how the rest of the world is reacting to his efforts. I also agree that the award may be a little premature, but the Nobel Committee seems to be saying “we recognize what he has done to reach out to — and listen to — the rest of the world.” In that context, the award is well-deserved.

  8. Newshound

    I agree he should accept with humility. And, I agree, this is most certainly early in the presidency.

    Fortunately, each of us can and more importantly, should judge for ourselves independent of Nobel judges. As General Patton is quoted, “if everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.”

    Obama so far has been a good president, has tried enormously, is ambitious and well intended.

    Having said that, his entire presidency and policies and manipulations so far are subject to horrible long term failure.

    It is the American people, the Wall Streeters and runaway corporate leaders who legally embezzle by raiding their own corporate funds, including Republicans, Democrats, independents and non-voters who contributed to the financial disaster that brewed for years in this country.

    But to say “his policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession” may be true, but it also may be steering this country towards long term economic failure.

    And to say “he’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president” is not necessarily true, either. So far, nothing accomplished and if his proposal is approved, still not a long-term health-financial solution.

  9. I think Mr. Pahre makes some very valid points. While I agree it is premature, I also think that we need to recognize that this award is global in nature, not limited to OUR views of HIS impact. If it symbolizes the view of much of the world about the US, dare we minimize an impact simply because we ourselves are incapable of appreciating what it means the the “rest’ of the world? While we may feel our position in the world is diminished, perhaps the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. To them it is likely the equivalent difference between the “cold war” an “detente”… a rather significant one. Refuse it, that would be an insult. And I dont think it necessarily has any impact or othwerwise reflects in any way on other ‘African-Americans’ recipients.. unless you’ve already concluded that it was simply awarded to him because he is black. I dont think it’s that clear or simple.

  10. Newshound

    It is hard to believe that Mr. Obama is any more of a peace solving president than President Bush, or any other president, thus far.

    His tactics are different, and his attitude and his speaking mannerism, too, but that is not to say that his commitment to world peace is any more effective or better intended than that of President Bush.

    President Bush was equally devoted to world peace and to allow those Peoples who wanted to enjoy freedom to be able to do so, even if it meant dire, and perhaps irrelevant consequences to the enemy of freedom and peace.

    Realities and ideals have different dimensions, but the objectives of President Bush, and perhaps all prior presidents such as Hoover, Carter, Reagan, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Wilson – all made their best efforts toward protecting the USA and developing world peace.

    Can we compare Mr. Obama with George Washington who ordered shots fired at our dear English friends and relatives for the cause of freedom, independence and world peace?

  11. President Obama should accept the award graciously, but not make too big a deal of it. It’s a disturbing trend that many of the same people who cheered when Chicago was rejected as the Olympics site are now demanding Obama reject the Nobel or citing the award as proof that “only dem foreign Socialists” like Obama. “Isolationist troglodyte chic” should not be allowed to catch on here as the U.S. tries to undo the negative perception it has endured in the World community the past 8 years.

    Should he have gotten it? Although he is a better choice than Henry Kissinger or Yasser Arafat, it probably is premature, particularly because Iraq and Afghanistan are still on the front burner and he has yet to roll up his sleeves and make any bold moves. However, Obama should receive kudos for visiting nations around the world and opening lines of communication, instead of the sword-waving favored by his predecessor.

  12. lkcape

    He is to be congratulated.

    I fear, however that this is more of “having an award to give ” than it is of “having someone to award it to.”

    Obama’s “promise” is just that, and may be like many of the other promises that he has made, more in the making than in the delivery.

    It is ironic that the Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to someone who is about to expand a war that will continue to be fought but may never be won.

    But, he is to be congratulated.

  13. Treg

    I’m a flaming liberal and I’m not perplexed. For better or worse (worse, I’d say), it’s a political maneuver on the part of the Nobel committee. I agree he maybe qualifies someday, but not yet.

    I’d be surprised if President Obama doesn’t see it that way too. Absurd as it may seem, he is probably figuring out how to make the best of it. At least he can say he didn’t ask for it.

    And it’s an opportunity to give the mother of all foreign policy speeches.

  14. Treg

    I see he’s already on top of it:

    “Call to action.”

    Well played.

  15. Treg

    Just reading the comments here – one thing I think is way off base is the idea that this has anything to do with race. This is about reversing eight long, destructive Bush years.

  16. paul

    As I think more and more about this, I wonder whether the committee is sending a message with this award. And maybe that message is intended for just one person, the recipient himself. The message: “Many many people are counting on you to do accomplish some great things. Please don’t blow this opportunity.”

    I think they’ve done things along these lines before (but never so prematurely) — honoring someone for the good works they could do if they only continue to act like a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

  17. CAvard

    Just because you follow after a bad president doesn’t make you worthy of consideration for the prize. Had George W. Bush not been president, would Obama still be considered for the award? I don’t even know where to begin on Obama’s hypocrisies.

    He is continuing Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama’s increased the number of private contractors in Iraq (read Jeremy Scahill) and is now seriously considering a surge in Afghanistan. That’s more bloodshed and it will result in less security.

    It’s not just people on the left and right, Kathy. Nobel peace prize winners are also surprised. Mairead MaGuire called it “sad.”

    And then there’s this from historian Andy Worthington.

    Is it really appropriate for the Nobel Peace Prize to be given to a man who would rather look forward than backwards when it comes to decisions, taken at the highest levels of the previous administration, to turn America from a country that upheld the universal torture ban into a country that sought to redefine torture so that it could torture “high-value detainees” in a network of secret prisons around the world?

    Is it really appropriate for the Nobel Peace Prize to be given to a man who, although he ordered the closure of Guantánamo and recognizes that it “set back the moral authority” that, in his opinion, “is America’s strongest currency in the world,” and also that it “became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause,” endorses indefinite detention without charge or trial for some of the 221 prisoners still held in the prison?

    Is it really appropriate for the Nobel Peace Prize to be given to a man who, through the Justice Department, is appealing a ruling extending the habeas corpus rights granted by the Supreme Court to the prisoners at Guantánamo to foreign prisoners seized in other countries and “rendered” to the US prison at Bagram airbase – where some of these men have been held for six years – even though the judge ruled that “the detainees themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the same”?

    Is it really appropriate to give the Nobel Peace Prize to a man who, although he revoked some of the Bush administration’s vilest executive orders and swore to uphold the universal torture ban, appears to be actively involved in the rendition of prisoners to the US prison at Bagram airbase?

    Is it really appropriate for the Nobel Peace Prize to be given to a man who, although professing his admiration for the Geneva Conventions, has chosen to introduce Guantánamo-style reviews for the 600 or so Afghan prisoners held at Bagram, rather than the competent tribunals stipulated in Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, and who, as a result, appears to be endorsing the Bush administration’s unilateral rewriting of the Conventions?

    It’s all documented here at Common Dreams.

    And of course, my pet peeve, Obama should not be considered precisely because of drone attacks that have killed innocent civilians (which he authorized), he caved on Israeli settlements in Palestine, and he also prevented the UN Security Council from dealing with the Goldstone Report on Israel’s atrocious human rights abuses.

    Engaging in diplomacy is not trailblazing work in international relations. Not only has Obama not accomplish anything significant yet, but I always thought the Nobel Committee gives out awards to those who do something new or different. Obama doesn’t meet this criterion.

    OK, you have your opinions, fine. I’m just sharing mine. If people want to follow real peace awards follow The Right Livelihood Award, The Goldman Prize, or my favorite the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism. Consider these more worthy than the Nobel Peace Prize.

    There is SO MUCH more I could point out, but I just don’t think Obama deserves it. It’s more than just the right and left.

  18. Frank

    The prize is, pure and simple, a political gesture. It is not based on any accomplishments. And Obama has made clear he knows that. The Nobel folks are saying we want you to be a president who reflects our left-wing values. Obama is squirming, knowing that the US is a lot farther to the right than the Nobel people are–or the folks posting here, for that matter. The US is a center-right country; a recent poll found twice as many Americans call themselves conservatives as call themselves liberals. That’s why Obama’s legislative proposals are crashing in the polls…Americans are coming to realize that the country can’t afford the mountain of debt he plans to build atop the already large debt left by his predecessor.

  19. To Treg and Bob Fontaine: Here’s part of what the Nobel Committee said in awarding the prize to Obama: “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.”

    Now let’s be honest. A large part of the reason he captured the world’s attention and gave people hope for a better future was for what he represented to progressives, to nonwhite people around the world. I don’t think a liberal white guy would have captured the world’s attention and given people hope in the same way. Certainly John Kerry’s candidacy didn’t.

    So yes, I do think race enters into Obama’s appeal and this sense of hope and change that the Nobel Committee mentioned.

    If you disagree, what has he done in concrete terms, what action has he taken, to inspire such hope and capture the world’s attention?

    You don’t get a prize for simply showing up to work.

  20. Al

    I’m surprised by it. I think it’s too early for a Nobel Prize to be awarded to him. I would feel better if there had been a serious record of accomplishments in the area of global peace. Treg seems to have a good point, which is that this has a lot to do with Obama’s behavior towards the world after the Bush years of belligerence.

  21. Neil

    I think Obama was given the award for his foreign policy of engagement which is in marked contrast to the Bush/Cheney pre-emptive warfare doctrine and their isolation of enemies aka the “axis of evil.” The award also recognizes the exceptional influence the US still has over world peace.

    Obama received the award nominally for his work in the Senate on nuclear arms control but the real reason he won the award was because he was the not-Bush. Nominations were do in February, long before he engaged the Muslim world with his speech in Cairo.

    The biggest single thing he could do to earn the award besides having won the election is get Israel and Palestine to agree to a two-state solution, to stop lobbying missiles at Israel and to stop building settlements on Palestinian land.

    He has already boxed in North Korean disestablishing export of WMD technology and he has already brought China and Russia into a coalition of the worlds biggest economies offering carrots and sticks in response to Iran’s military nuclear ambitions.

  22. mo dhar

    If we can give out the prize for wishing upon a star, why not give it out to someone who actually deserved it like mahatma gandhi??

  23. Neil

    Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore.

    There’s a logistical problem giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Bush. If Bush traveled to Oslo to receive the award, he’d likely be arrested for war crimes (war of aggression Iraq and torture) and then be extradited to The Hague.

  24. Treg

    Esther, I don’t take that message at all. Eyes of the beholder.

  25. Newshound

    Esther – you make very valid points – appreciate the contribution.

  26. BillH

    The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a private committee; they decide who is deserving and who isn’t. It’s their prize. I must say that I find it interesting that so many of our true and true, red-white-and- blue “patriots” on the right are again howling at the moon, and so soon after expressing pleasure that the U.S. was passed over for the Olympics. Chicago? Not a world class city, they say. Barack Obama, president of the U.S.? A terrible choice for this most prestigious award. Strange times, indeed.

  27. mike_b1

    To suggest, as Newshound does, that “President Bush was equally devoted to world peace and to allow those Peoples who wanted to enjoy freedom to be able to do so, even if it meant dire, and perhaps irrelevant consequences to the enemy of freedom and peace” is perhaps the worst case of revisionist history since the Japanese issued textbooks that failed to mention that nation’s role in WWII.

  28. lkcape

    There are another considerations on this matter.

    1) The Nobel Committee has set a standard for Obama to meet, and his failure will hurt both Obama and the United States.

    The odds of failure greatly outweigh those of success.

    2) Obama, and the world, must recognize that Obama is the President of the UNITED STATES, not the of world.

  29. BillH

    Ikape, you need to back and reread your Teddy Roosevelt, the part about the man is who’s not afraid to enter the arena, and who, if he fails, at least has dared greatly. Words such as those used to inspire Americans to dream of doing big things. I’d love to see old TR’s reaction to his party’s cheap disparagement of Obama’s idealism.

  30. He should win it for changing the tenor of U.S. foreign relations alone. I can’t believe this has become an issue. He was nominated and won the award. Of course he should accept. We should all be honored that our president has won one of the most accomplished awards in the world.

  31. O-FISH-L

    The Europeans hate America almost as much as Obama does.

    Nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize closed 11 days into Obama’s presidency, so this has nothing to do with his current job. This is a reward to Obama for his close associations with Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and the rest. The anti-American crowd feels as though they have one of their own in the White House, so naturally they give him an award. Why are people surprised?

  32. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: I agree with you that Obama didn’t deserve the Nobel, although I disagree with the rest.

    I do want to point out that the deadline for nominations was last February, but that Obama might not actually have been picked until this week.

    That tells me that the committee early on identified Obama as someone it might want to honor. Not that it made its decision 11 days after his inauguration.

  33. BillH

    “The Europeans hate America almost as much as Obama does.”
    Fish, that’s the kind of lunacy that will consign the Right to the very fringes of American politics. Argue the Peace Prize up or down, debate whether Obama should have won, criticize the policies that you disagree with, all of that. But when you say that the president of the United States “hates” his country, that places you out on the farthest frontier, out beyond farce. Take a look throughout U.S. history at where such sentiments have led. Limbaugh, Beck and their disciples (you?) can’t control their hyperbole, and are riding the Republican Right into well deserved obscurity.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Bill: The truly demented reaction of the right is almost enough to make me glad Obama won the Nobel.

  34. O-FISH-L

    Dan, don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that Obama won. Rush said it best, “this fully exposes the illusion that is Barack Obama.” I’ve noticed that even some liberals are starting to get embarrassed. It’s terrific!

    As for whether or not Obama hates America, I guess we can argue that he had invisible earplugs on during the 20 years that “Reverend” Wright was spewing his anti-American venom.

    Perhaps Wright and Obama could appear at a joint press conference to answer questions. Oops, I almost forgot, “Them Jews won’t let me near him,” says Obama’s pastor. Peace indeed!

    Perhaps Rev. Wright will grab the Peace Prize next year, or maybe Bill Ayers.

  35. Aaron Read

    I liked it – it gave me the perfect opportunity to crack a joke when I was MC’ing the broadcast of NPR’s Science Friday from Cornell University today. (the joke being that while introducing host Ira Flatow I said I thought he was a shoo-in for the Nobel) Got a bigger laugh than it probably deserved, but I’ll take it.

  36. mike_b1

    “Rush said it best …

    Should have stopped right there. Rush has never said anything “best.”

    Loudest, maybe. Incoherently, certainly. Factually untrue, absolutely. But best? Never.

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