Sabatos Crystal Ball

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

A new kind of October suprise

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 9th, 2009


I didn’t need my coffee this morning. The stunning Nobel announcement sufficed.

I’m only competent to address the political implications. For President Obama, the enhanced prestige is an intangible element that can help him on the international stage. It may also make some difference in his quest for health care reform. This is because the success of a health care bill now depends almost entirely on Democratic votes in Congress, and Democrats will be the ones most impressed by the award. What a difference a week makes, huh? The Nobel Peace Prize certainly wipes out the embarrassment of Obama’s Olympics disaster!

Also on the plus side, think of the TV ad that David Axelrod can craft for Obama’s 2012 reelection. The other three U.S. presidential winners either received the award in their second terms (Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson) or long after the White House years (Jimmy Carter). Obama will be the first one who can actually put the Nobel Prize to good political use.

The Prize is not an unalloyed plus, however. Even to Obama supporters, the award seems ridiculously premature. To give him the prize for a few speeches, a new “tone”, and certain issue positions is odd. We’ve come to think of the Nobel Peace Prize as a career-capper or a reward for significant tangible accomplishments rather than simple promise of what might be.

Conservative and Republican criticism of this announcement is guaranteed and expected. But how will average Americans react? Pride may be mixed with a sense that this is the equivalent of someone receiving a gold watch in his first months on the job, rather than at retirement as a deserved salute for a job well done.

If the President wants to minimize the negative fallout, it is essential that he steel himself to be unaffected by the new title, lest he lose his elective title in 2012. His job is to act in the U.S. national interest, not to please a Norwegian committee’s view of the world. The globe is populated with a sizeable number of dangerous, cruel people diametrically opposed to America. Inevitably, military force will be required again and again during the Obama administration. The Nobel Prize committee probably won’t approve the use of force in most instances, and may eventually come to regret today’s decision. But if Barack Obama wants to be a successful and reelected president, he needs to take a clear-and-cold eyed view of the world. He must expect and welcome future criticism that his actions prove him ‘undeserving’ of the Peace prize.

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