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Barack Obama: Employee of the month?


"Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander in chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars," Obama said during his Nobel prize acceptance speech in Oslo. But it wasn't the only time he emphasized his job responsibilities. "I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King," he explained later. "But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone."

The repetition of the job description reads as a rejoinder not to critics so much as supporters. Obama is arguing that he's not a symbol or an inspiration so much as he is an employee, and his position comes with a certain set of responsibilities, and certain suite of strictures, and he means to live within those confines. He's not a King or a Gandhi because that's not, well, his job. The vision that people have of him -- the vision that got him the Nobel peace prize -- is not an understanding of the role he currently occupies, and means to continue occupying.

It's rare, I imagine, for someone to accept the Nobel Peace Prize by explaining that they have no intention of following in the footsteps of King and Gandhi. But that was Obama's argument yesterday. It wasn't an argument with King or Gandhi so much as with the expectations and hopes his global, and many of his domestic, supporters have for him. Obama is president now, and though he may speak in poetry, the job demands that he work in prose.

Photo credit: Jarl Erichsen/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 11, 2009; 12:48 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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That's a great way of putting it. Many of the people who complain about Obama "not doing enough" seem to forget that the Presidency is not the embodiment of the American government -- he's one part of the system. The American system may be messy (see the health reform debate), but we're much closer to what it's supposed to look like.

I don't know whether I like it or not. So far it seems pretty close to what he said it would be.

Posted by: jjhare | December 11, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

He made a politically safe argument, not one that necessarily makes strict sense. King and Gandhi made change using certain tools and strategies. These tools are available to our government leaders, but the general public has certain expectations based on "common sense" notions which would be and are exploited by political enemies.

This part of Obama's speech reminds me of his reply to the question he received in Allentown PA. He made the safe political move by mostly dismissing it and poking fun.

There are better, more effective strategies available. In Allentown, Obama chose to avoid the discussion of some in one context. In Oslo, Obama made an argument that people should excuse his choice to be less like King and Gandhi because of his position. This argument does not excuse him butshows how ordinary a leader he is.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 11, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

This conflict between the iconic "Yes we can" imagery of the campaign and the inspirational figure which most of Obama's supporters have had of him since he won in Iowa colliding with the actual real world responsibilities of an American president made the sort of disappointment of this year inevitable, sadly.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 11, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Best remark I've heard yet on this topic came from Howard Fineman, Tuesday night on MSNBC. More or less, he said, "It's the Nobel Peace Prize, not the Nobel Pacifism Prize. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Obama is not a pacifist.

P.S. Ghandi never won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was nominated the year he was assassinated, and since the prize is not given posthumously, it went to no one that year.

Posted by: Rick00 | December 11, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I have no argument with Obama reminding the people who misguidedly tried to cage him with the prize that he is doing a different job than making peace; his job is to preserve a declining empire.

I do object to his lying about history in the speech. The line "America has never fought a war against a democracy ..." is for all practical purposes false. More here:

Posted by: janinsanfran | December 11, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Life imitates The West Wing:

Bartlet: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral. Returning violence with violence only multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.'"
Leo: Dr. King.
Bartlet: I'm part of that darkness now, Leo. When did that happen?
Leo: Dr. King wasn't wrong. He just didn't have your job.

Posted by: criggs1 | December 11, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Right up until Obama's speech at West Point, I thought a lot about what a tremendous amount of leadership, humanity, and wisdom it would be if he ultimately decided to deny the generals more troops. Alas, Bob Herbert of the NYT got it right when he noted that Obama went for the easy political way out by supporting the generals. bcbulger said it, Obama, despite the smooth eloquence of his speeches, is an ordinary politician indeed.

Posted by: goadri | December 11, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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