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Obama's peace prize win: a bold statement and a stunner, too

President Barack Obama is given to big events at big moments, replete with stirring speeches, lofty backdrops and stadium-size crowds.

But when Obama walked into the Rose Garden on Friday morning having just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — an honor that would normally be a moment of high celebration, if not the culmination of a life's work — he was humble and self-deprecatory, popping a hole in the balloon of his own accomplishment. He talked about being congratulated by his daughter Malia, who proceeded to remind him that it was the family dog's birthday, and he suggested that he was undeserving of the award.

"Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations," he said.

Whatever it meant on the world stage, in the United States the award to Obama was a decidedly mixed blessing. It was a reminder of the gap between the ambitious promise of his words and his accomplishments. It drew attention to the fact that while much of the world was celebrating him as the anti-Bush, he had not broken as fully as he had once implied he would from the previous administration's national security policies. And it set off another round of mocking criticism from opponents who have chafed at what they see as the charmed and entitled rise of Obama.

So while he accepted the award and said he would travel to Oslo, Norway, to pick it up, Obama also sought to minimize any impression that he was basking in the glory or forgetting that he was a long way from achieving the goals — ridding the world of nuclear weapons, stopping global warming, bringing peace to the Middle East, among others — that the judges seemed to expect of him.

There are, without doubt, benefits to Obama. Democrats moved quickly to portray the Nobel as an honor to the United States after years of being an object of some scorn. For the liberal base of the Democratic Party, the prize is a ratification of the belief that Obama's election would carry powerful symbolic meaning. Abroad, it provides Obama additional stature to be lumped with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.

"I'd like to believe that winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not a political liability," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "But this isn't something I gave a moment of thought to until today. Hopefully people will receive it with some sense of pride. But I don't know; it's uncharted waters."

It was all but impossible to escape the fact that in the politically polarized world where Obama operates — locked these days in a fierce debate over overhauling the health care plan that is central to his presidency — this was another complication. Even before Obama made it to the Rose Garden, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, had issued a statement mocking Obama, a line of attack that was echoed on conservative blogs and radio talk shows throughout the day.

"Can you imagine, folks, how big Obama's head is today?" Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk-show host, told his listeners. "I think it's getting so big that his ears actually fit."

The timing of the announcement was not ideal. Fairly or not, an emerging criticism on the left and the right is that after nine months, Obama has not gotten much done. That was the theme of a skit on Saturday Night Live last week that caught the notice of Obama's political team.

Related to the question of whether his record justified the award was the notion of whether Obama, to some degree, remains as much a symbol as a flesh-and-blood political leader. The image of Europe celebrating him as a global peacemaker recalled the period during the presidential race when Sen. John McCain's campaign portrayed Obama as a vapid celebrity playing to huge European crowds, a line of attack that left the normally sure-footed Obama team flummoxed.

It is hardly clear that the award will have any long-term impact on the public's perception of Obama or of his agenda. It came at a time when his prospects for getting the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass some kind of health care bill seems stronger than ever; as Obama's advisers said, a victory like that could go a lot further in shaping public perceptions than attacks from conservatives.

Still, this White House was leaving little to chance. His muted speech was followed hours later by an e-mail message to supporters echoing many of those same self-deprecatory themes.

At the same time, Democrats quickly began making the argument that this was an honor less for this president, and more for this country, and that no one should offer any apologies. "It's honoring the country," said Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska. "The Nobel Committee couldn't award the peace prize to the voters of the United States, but that's what they are doing. It's an award Americans should feel good about."

One recognition of the tricky politics the award presents came from Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican who is considering challenging Obama in 2012.

"I know there's going to be some people who are saying, 'Was it based on good intentions and thoughts, or is it going to be based on results?' " Pawlenty said on his radio show on WCCO in Minneapolis. "But I think the appropriate response, or an appropriate response, is when anybody wins a Nobel Prize, you know that is a very noteworthy development and designation and award, and I think the proper response is to say congratulations."

Whatever the case, the White House clearly hopes that this is one celebration where the congratulations do not go on for too long. A few hours after his Rose Garden appearance, Obama was addressing dignitaries in the East Room about consumer financial regulations, in one of the orchestrated events that have become so familiar during the first nine months of his presidency.

Adam Nagourney is chief political correspondent for the New York Times.

Obama's peace prize win: a bold statement and a stunner, too 10/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 6:56am]
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