The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama landed with a shock on the nation's capital. He won! For what?
For one of America's youngest presidents, in office less than nine months, and only for 12 days before the Nobel nomination deadline last February, it was an astonishing award.
But the prize seems to be more for promise than performance. Obama so far has no standout moment of victory. As for most presidents in their first year, the report card on Obama's ambitious agenda is an "incomplete."
He banned extreme interrogation techniques for terrorists. But he also promised to close the globally controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a task with difficulties that have Obama headed to miss his own January 2010 deadline.
He said he would end the Iraq war. But he slowed the U.S. troop drawdown a bit. Meantime, he's running a second war in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan, and is seriously considering ramping that one up.
He has pushed for new efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But there's been little cooperation so far.
His administration is talking to U.S. foes, like Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But there's not much to show from that, either.
He said he wants a nuclear-free world. But it was one thing to show the desire in his April Prague speech, and quite another to unite hesitant nations and U.S. lawmakers behind the necessary web of treaties and agreements.
He pledged to take the lead against climate change. But the U.S. seems likely to head into December's crucial international negotiations in Copenhagen with Obama-backed legislation still stalled.
And what about Obama's global prestige? It seemed to take a hit exactly a week ago when his trans-Atlantic journey to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago was rejected with a last-place finish.
For the Nobel committee, merely altering the tone out of Washington toward the rest of the world seemed enough. Obama got much attention for his speech from Cairo reaching out a U.S. hand to the world's Muslims. His remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last month set down internationally welcome new markers for the way the U.S. works with the world.
But still. ...
Obama said he was as surprised as everyone else when he was awakened about an hour after the announcement.
"I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize," he said in the Rose Garden hours later. "That is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."
The prize is not necessarily a big plus for Obama in the tricky U.S. political arena.
He won election last year in part because voters weary with the nation's battered image abroad were attracted to his promise of a new start. But Republicans have been criticizing Obama as being too much celebrity and too little action, and they immediately seized on this new praise, from Europeans, no less, to try to bring him down a peg.
From Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, for instance: "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements."
For Nobel voters, the award could be as much a slap at Obama's predecessor as about lauding Obama. Former President George W. Bush was reviled by much of the world for his cowboy diplomacy, Iraq war and snubbing of European priorities like global warming.
And remember that the Nobel prize has a long history of being awarded more for the committee's aspirations than for others' accomplishments, for Mideast peace or a better South Africa, for instance. In some cases, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments.
Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said as much. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early?" he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond, all of us."
Obama certainly understands his challenges are too steep to resolve quickly. "It's not going to be easy," the president often says as he sets tasks for the United States.
The Nobel committee, it seems, had the audacity to hope that he'll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.
This article first appeared on Associated Press on 9th October 2009.