In a world teeming with almost seven billion souls and smarting from the growing pains of hunger, disease, war, and despoliation, what a wonder that little Norway, that scenic hinterland once called home by the Vikings, can throw an axe to the globe and cause an international commotion simply by conferring an award to our sitting president.
Leave it to Norwegians to achieve the remarkable feat of humiliating the man they sought to honor. At home and abroad, the public has reacted coolly at best to the news of Obama’s recent accolade, creating an unlikely nexus of opinion between the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the Taliban, and prompting the former to remark that, “Our President is a worldwide joke.”
It is a terrible irony to be applauded for peace when planning for war. And it’s no laughing matter when news programs flash images of dead Afghan children and victims of American airstrikes side-by-side with the gold-engraved profile of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and bigwig armaments manufacturer of the 19th century.
Most observers don’t blame Obama for inheriting two wars; they blame him for accepting other bequests of his unpopular predecessor, ranging from the issue of executive power to the treatment of detainees to the federal funding of faith-based initiatives. As for his own platform, the man of the hour seems to be melting under the limelight, with falling popularity and slipping support from congressional colleagues testifying to the poverty of “hope” with no plan for action.
In many ways it seems the President has become a victim of his own success. During his historic campaign, Obama’s political message condensed a daunting range of promises and aspirations, conveying a breathtaking landscape of post-partisan national progress driven by the simple dictum, “Yes we can.” But like a millennial prophet who botches his credibility by setting the date of the apocalypse within his own lifetime, Obama’s rhetoric started rotting as soon as it got fixed on specific timetables, tested by the stolid crucible of the here-and-now.
We understand an award as recognition for accomplishment, as an epilogue to excellence, but Obama’s Nobel is a testament to absence, an elegy to a year with scarce results, a crown of thorns and a political liability. It recalls the old accusations of “inexperience” and “inaction” hurled by election-time opponents, and magnifies their malicious effect.
This isn’t the first time since taking office that Obama has been slighted for the discrepancy between his humble record and lavish rhetoric. When he delivered the commencement speech to Arizona State University, the University declined to offer him an honorary degree customarily conferred on speakers, saying that his “body of work is yet to come.” Obama accepted this assessment without complaint, and in an inspiring address, delivered a call to action before the graduates, imploring them to be leaders in making change, for the “body of your work is yet to come,” he said.
Obama maintains that his Nobel is another “call to action,” and accepts the award as an endorsement of his international objectives. But it’s hard to shirk the growing feeling that the apparent roadblocks to action encountered this year for the President have more to do with his personal foibles than with the obstructions of his enemies. After all, it didn’t take the Nobel fiasco to have pundits growling from all sides over the President’s dithering about Afghanistan and timorous equivocations about health care reform. On the very issues he trumpeted, the President has used his executive power to demonstrate a failure of resolve and a preference for half-measures, aimed at pleasing a constituency that never supported him, but missing the mark by alienating supporters instead.
Whatever “action” consists of and however it is measured, it’s certain to be a mounting problem as Obama’s political momentum slows to a halt.
I hope this episode will pinch Obama into the kind of action that, as executive, he has great leverage to achieve. The Nobel Prize was established as a graveside detour for Alfred Nobel, who found his own call to action when he read the searing condemnation of his character contained in a premature obituary published in 1888. Nobel endowed the Prizes as a gesture of contrition and compensation. Perhaps his Prize can galvanize the President just the same.
Marshall Knudson is fourth-year in the College majoring in anthropology.