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Obama's Nobel Prize

Thumbnail image for PH2009100901193.jpgI had a good time making fun of Barack Obama's Nobel prize this morning. It is undeserved. It is a bit ridiculous. But it's a laugh in the way that finding a $900 antique chair in the attic is a laugh, or getting paid $120,000 to be a celebrity dog walker is a laugh. It's an absurdity worth celebrating. It's an absurdity that can help you.

During the campaign, one of the arguments for Obama's candidacy was that his election would give us a costless shot of international goodwill. That the symbolism of his election would aid America's international standing without forcing any substantive policy concessions. At the time, that was a very big deal: Leaders were winning elections in other countries in no small part by tying incumbents to George W. Bush. That made it a lot harder for our allies to loudly support our initiatives. Fixing that was not going to be easy. Candidates and countries pay a lot of money to better their public image. Obama, some said, could do some of it on the cheap. Andrew Sullivan made the argument well:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man — Barack Hussein Obama — is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The Nobel Committee said, in essence, thank you for proving us wrong. The prize was about what Obama meant to other countries, or at least to the Nobel Committee. Not what he currently means to America.

America has already gotten used to Obama. It's common to talk about the "overexposure" of the first African American president in history. It's ordinary to see him hedging on important political priorities, and failing to please his most ardent supporters. It's normal to see him called communist by his enemies and spineless by his friends. America, to its credit, has adjusted to its first black president with ease and swiftness.

But the rest of the world hasn't necessarily done the same. This prize, which came as Obama contemplates a troop build-up in Afghanistan and hectors the international community on financial regulation and global warming, suggests that there is some reservoir of relief and amazement for America's young president. The international gushing may seem absurd to us, as the schoolyard lionization of an older brother often seems funny to a sibling, but it can be used to our advantage. Leaders in allied countries no longer run against America, and now the Nobel Committee is attempting to welcome America back as the leader of the free world. And it didn't cost us anything. Would that life told more jokes like that one.

Photo credit: By Jon-Michael Josefsen — Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  October 9, 2009; 5:45 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Comments

>> America, to its credit, has adjusted to its first black president with ease and swiftness.

Really? You can say that after a summer of birthers and tenthers; accusations of communism, "government takeovers", and death panels; astroturfed anger at chaotic town halls; and of course, a skyrocketing gun sale rate? You can see that and say we've "adjusted to its first black president with ease"? I think the election of our first black president has sent about 20% of this country into a sickening spiral of madness and denial.
But maybe that's just me.

Posted by: gilroy0 | October 9, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I was just commenting on your morning post when I saw this one. I really take issue with the "it's ridiculous" statement. It is not. We have become "too" used to Obama and failed to see him as the rest of the world sees him. He has done significant work on nuclear nonproliferation; he has brought Russia into a working relationship with us; he is working on the mideast as we speak. Perhaps it is a bit premature, but he himself acknowledged that. It is unusual but it is not ridiculous.

And as for gilroy - 20% of the country was already in a sickening spiral of madness and denial -- they've been that way for years. They just get more press now and seem louder.

Posted by: LindaB1 | October 9, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Linda nails it.

Prior to the Clinton Admin, this kind of treatment of an American Pres by a substantial segment of the population, including leaders of the opposition and prominent media figures had not been seen since Truman and before him FDR. True, it is a characteristic GOP response to Dem Presidents, who are seen as usurpers, but still. No one talked about impeaching Jimmy Carter (or LBJ or JFK), and Truman got a bit of a break coming in after FDR's death. It got more virulent once we entered the '50s, especially in the lead up to the '52 election and with McCarthy. But although I was pretty young, I don't remember impeachment or armed insurrection being on the table with Truman.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 9, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Woah, Ezra this post reads like you snapped.

"It's ordinary to see him hedging on important political priorities, and failing to please his most ardent supporters. It's normal to see him called communist by his enemies and spineless by his friends. America, to its credit, has adjusted to its first black president with ease and swiftness."

His most ardent supporters are still with him, folks like Krugman and the far left only backed Obama as a ticket to things they wanted but he never endorsed. Those who saw him for what he was knew he wasn't going to be the left's version of Bush. Certainly there has been hedging, but since when has that not been the status quo for presidents. No, he has largely held true to the campaign pledges he made, if not following the exact timeline set by the Village or his opponents (who clearly have not gotten over the fact that he is Black and not a Southerner).

Your dismissal of how we arrived where we are in today's politics and accepting this constant undermining and sniping at a President 1/4th of the way into his 1st term is astounding. Since when was that the norm? So I'll take the prize as a wake up call that there are serious things left undone that we are expected to take action on, maybe the right can sober up from their intoxicating fear-mongering and help move this nation's interests forward.

Posted by: PaulW99 | October 9, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse


how can you say that there is anything undeserved or ridiculous about giving barack obama the nobel peace prize.

i just dont understand how you can look at the measure of the man, and not see his extraordinary qualities, of reaching out to others. of forgiving his enemies. of never resorting to the acrimony or cruelty that is leveled at him.
every quality that one would look for in a man of peaceful intentions, he has.
he leads and inspires by example.
it makes me sad to think that anyone would find barack obama unworthy of this prize.
he is human.
he will make mistakes, but he is a person of beautiful character
he has set an example of forgiveness, courage and humility.
i believe he has received this award because he is deeply deserving of it.

Posted by: jkaren | October 9, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Renard Sexton at FiveThirtyEight.com had some interesting points on this subject this morning:

...."The justification for the prize, while certainly unexpected and a bit tenuous, is indeed rooted in fact. Obama has long been a booster for non-proliferation, and his speech and lobbying at the UN General Assembly and Security Council proved to be quite successful.

On climate change, the Obama administration has taken the toughest line against carbon emissions of any White House so far in terms of concrete regulations by Federal agencies. The September announcement by the EPA that the agency would begin to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, verified by the Supreme Court in 2007, was a major step towards US action on the climate change issue. Though cap-and-trade or other large scale programmes are clearly the purvue of Congress, the executive branch's efforts in the realm are likely to be a major portion of the US effort.

Regarding diplomacy, the committee was likely in part referring to the re-elevation of Susan Rice's post, the US Ambassador to the UN, to a cabinet level post, as well as his public addresses and promised strategic changes toward diplomatic action over rapid military decisions - such as Iran. The G5 plus one meeting with Iran, where Undersecretary of State Burns officially met with the Iranian negotiator, and found a way forward on nuclear energy processing was the first concrete outcome of this strategy.

In the US realm, this is a great boost for the Obama foreign agenda - which certainly played into the decision by the Nobel folks. While the US political scene is often quite skeptical of the international community, the Peace Prize is a quite lauded affair. Even major Obama detractors will have a bit of hard time criticizing his win, especially after their poorly received revelry of Chicago's olympic demise. For Obama liberal supporters, it is a bittersweet moment --many have criticized the administration's foreign policy for moving to the center, particularly on war issues, and the Peace Prize designation takes a great deal of air out of that balloon.

Perhaps the happiest people in the US on this one will be the centrists - and those who wanted Obama to reshape the US image abroad. Whether the award is warranted (too soon? too uncertain?) or relevant (peace prize as we're discussing escalation in Afghanistan?, for the leader of the largest and most powerful military force in the world to be awarded a prize for peace and diplomacy is quite an interesting development."

To these reasons I would add his pledge to no new settlements in the occupied territories, not militarizing eastern Europe with star wars, and bringing in Russia as an ally to deal with Iran.

Is it too early for him to win a Nobel? probably....but LindaB1is right...as a country we so ignore any developments outside our borders we can not see what good he is doing internationally.

Posted by: scott1959 | October 9, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

look at how many detractors he has had.
he has had to slay dragons, one after the other. one could make a list as long as one's arm.
the acrimony and cruel comments and demeaning treatment that has been levelled against him.
i remember mccain sneering at him and walking in front of him during the debates, other congress people singing racist songs, the comments of bill and hillary clinton, sarah palin, the horrific statements made by people on the right that are dangerous to him, the horrific cover depicting him as a joker...something that should never have been allowed....his detractors have been mean, dangerous and reckless....
and never once, never once, has he lowered himself. has he walked without dignity, into massive crowds without courage. there is not one enemy he has not forgiven. he has never not apologized when he has done something wrong.
outside of al gore and jimmy carter, i cannot think of anyone else in public life, who displays these qualities of forgiveness, humility and courage.
these are the qualities of a peacemaker.
it is personal. it the walk that a person takes.
in some ways, barack obama leads in a way that is beyond politics. he shows great moral responsibility.
that is the shift that we need.
certainly, he is human.
he will make mistakes, and disappoint groups of people some of the time.
but he knows how to compromise, forgive, look for the good in situations and people.
can he fix the greed and corruption in the hearts of powerful individuals? no. he cannot "fix" people's hearts.
but can he lead by example, and encourage and inspire generations of young people, and still spark hopefulness in people of all ages? certainly, yes.
i am so happy he has received this award.
considering the broken world he has assumed leadership in, he deserves all of the encouragement and respect that is owed him.
blessed be the peacemakers. and he is surely one of them.

Posted by: jkaren | October 9, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra writes a love letter to Obama, and most of the comments say he's being too harsh. I'll grant you he earns 5 stars (and a Nobel prize) for diplomacy. He's the best foreign policy president I can remember. It remains to be seen how good he'll be on national security and domestic policy.

Posted by: bmull | October 9, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Good call on citing Goodbye To All That. He was right.

Posted by: kpidcoc | October 9, 2009 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Hey, jkaren, just had to say that you brought me to tears.

And Ezra, i honestly did not expect you to use the ridiculous word "ridiculous". Obama deserve this award in 100%.

Posted by: impikk | October 9, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

It is a great decision and Obama absolutely should accept it. In addition to pissing off the Right it has revealed the Left’s congenital inability to think strategically into the future further than 10 minutes. The point is how do we get to a better world. It starts with rhetoric that reaches into the heart, and lots of it. The ancient world knew this. The Nobel Committee has chosen to shift in some years from awarding accomplished peacemakers to setting up the rhetorical means for making it happen. There’s a good deal of danger in that, for the Committee—and they have also made it hard for Obama in some immediate ways, such as in his Afghanistan policy. But this ups Obama’s hand in dealing with the leadership in Mideast countries where their publics have aspirations for peace and they can use the Nobel to vocalize it in a way which isn’t dangerous to them from their own governments. Obama can also use the acceptance speech to talk to people more generally, and if he is to become a true world leader, which is what we need, this is the way to go. I am heartened by the fact that the Nobel Committee has some grasp of what the world needs, and is willing to place a bet. Only in the West do we think that things can be changed just by getting elected—it’s insane. The work merely begins, then. Good leaders can’t do it in a vacuum (and this is pretty much what the U.S. Left provides, in any practical sense.) I have begun to wonder whether Obama’s biggest problem—the virulent Right being stupid and despicable clowns—isn’t really the cynics in his own party. If he doesn’t get all the help he can, then how stupid is everybody, anyhow?

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | October 9, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for getting it. From the perspective of a foreigner, Obama has made the single biggest contribution this past year to making the finding of common ground an international priority. The agenda of international relations has become, not what can you do for us, but what can we do together? Unfortunately the US media has been too busy yelling about Hitler to notice.

Posted by: JoMacD | October 9, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

An example of how other world leaders are clamoring to be seen with Obama: During the recent G20, the Brown govt desperately wanted a one-on-one meeting with Obama. They were turned down, repeatedly, and the issue became a huge embarrassment here. (I don't think you heard about it in the US, but headlines screamed about Obama rebuffing Brown here.) The Brown govt, in desperation, bragged about a "substantive" 15 minute meeting they had--in the kitchen on the way to a meeting.

Americans might see this as silly gushing, and think the prize is ridiculous, but the rest of the world isn't surprised one whit. I had drinks last night at a local pub and that reaction seemed to be confirmed. No surprise whatsoever.

Posted by: KathyF | October 10, 2009 1:51 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are a sellout.

There are indeed surprising elements to this award. However, to call it "ridiculous" shows that the influence of DC and the WaPo has truly warped your judgment.

The Post Partisan postings today are nothing short of shameful. Could you imagine, ever, ever, any collection of WaPo columnists writing a group of satirical and/or denunciating columns when and if any other American figure was awarded a Nobel Prize? Much less the President? My God, Henry Kissinger was a proven war criminal who threw together a series of false announcments in the process of creating that peace agreement solely in order to throw the 1972 election to Nixon. And not one peep of protest when he was awarded the prize (while his partners in South America were torturing and killing young leftists by the tens of thousands....).

And the WaPo offices are shocked and offended by this award? And you think it's ridiculous?

You'll go far, my boy. Just go far away from me.

Posted by: Dollared | October 10, 2009 2:07 AM | Report abuse

Obama's name was placed on the list of candidates on January 30th, 10 days after assuming the presidency. He sure must have accomplished a lot in those 10 days.

Posted by: johnhiggins1990 | October 10, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

So Ezra, are you saying that the President should also have received the Nobel in Medicine because he makes almost everybody feel better?

Posted by: gagkk | October 10, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

"So Ezra, are you saying that the President should also have received the Nobel in Medicine because he makes almost everybody feel better?"


and why not?
for many people, barack obama's presence has probably helped more than many psychiatrists.
"making almost everybody feel better" just by "being" an uplifting, decent, hopeful and calm human being can sometimes work just as well as conventional medicine.
in this climate, you cant even get all americans to agree that it is a great thing that "our" president has been chosen to receive the nobel peace prize.
how far we have fallen into ingratitude and cynicism when we cast aside honors and blessings.

Posted by: jkaren | October 10, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

"Ezra, you are a sellout."

Exactly. He's part of the WaPo team that puts out crap like this:
"Our Laureate: Neda of Iran" (WaPo)

But from the America of Barack Obama...

Micheal Moore says, Pie on face:
"Daily Kos: Get Off Obama's Back ...second thoughts from Michael Moore" (DailyKos)

Josh Marshall says, Pie on face:
"Unexpected Developments" (TPM)

Bob Creamer (from the great state of Illinois and home to Barack Obama) says, Pie on face:
"Obama's Nobel Prize Is Really a Tribute to American Voters" (HuffPo)

Andy Ostroy says, Pie on face:
"Why Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Is Deserved" (HuffPo)

Even Roy Edroso says, Pie on face:
"More Nobeloney" (Alicublog)

You might have to come from the American Midwest as a requirement to realize this, but Thank God we live in a country where conventional wisdom still gives way to things that really matter.

Posted by: leoklein | October 11, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

The Nobel Peace Price - after invasion and occupation of Iraq and undermining the UN Charter by telling lies to SC on WMD...is now inviting America back to civilized world. Kapito?

Posted by: hariknaidu | October 11, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Ezra! Shame on you! Here! Here! To jkaren. She said it best. Ezra, you are very young, and narrow-minded on this. Look at the whole body of this man's work as a human being. As a connector to the world. The outreach to other nations by our President says it all. Did you hear one word at the United Nations when our President spoke? Could you imagine if GWBush got this award? That idiot! No way.
This award is of the highest standard in the world. A world in which is unsettled by all accounts with terriorism at large. The President did not receive this award for the length of time in office, but for the true spiritual human being he is.
Ezra, here is a young man with a great mind, who speaks from the heart, whose very soul extends his hand to the world, especially leaders of dictatorship, and forges diplomatic communications that hasn't been witnessed since President Clinton.
Ezra, an apology from you is what your readers deserve and nothing less.
As an American, as a woman, and as, yes, a moderate Republican, I hope our comments will bring you around to see the light!
Sincerely, Debra

Posted by: cole4444cole | October 11, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

jkaren's comment at 6.59pm sums up the reality nicely. Obama is entirely deserving.

jkaren and others, part of the whole cost of being in the political swirl is that reality sometimes becomes hard to see.

Most of what is said about Obama in the media tends to say more about the person writing the opinion than it does about Obama.

I think jkaren has the down-to-earth, sensible view.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 11, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your Beltway bubble is showing, as well as your youth. Stop trying to be a Kewl Kid; travel a bit outside our borders and gain perspective; it's a big world out there and the world is sending us a message via the Nobel committee.

Posted by: jslamen | October 12, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

A friend's comment seems to get it right: "I get the feeling that for most of the world, the Bush Era was like watching your drunk father sitting at the kitchen table, playing with loaded guns and muttering about how he doesn't have "to take it anymore." This is the Nobel Prize for Normal."

Posted by: ljfamily | October 12, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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