The Prize and the Presidency

Reactions Similar Only in Their Intensity

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

The new winner of the Nobel Peace Prize walked out of his house just after 11 a.m., dressed handsomely in a dark suit and a classic blue tie. He descended a marble staircase into a manicured garden, flowers in full bloom, and stepped up to a podium on a perfect autumn day. After making a joke about the lightheartedness of children, he said he was "surprised and humbled" by the award. Then he asked the world to unite by providing all people with opportunity, dignity and freedom from violence and disease.

All told, Barack Obama spoke for six minutes Friday. He said little concrete, nothing controversial, nothing contentious. And yet, once he walked back into his house, contention dominated the day.

This is how it has always gone with Obama: His latest coronation, this time as Nobel Peace Prize winner, inspired a dozen different reactions that were similar only in their intensity.

Instead of the universal tribute that often accompanies a Nobel Prize, Obama's award resulted in a deluge of response that included all the divisiveness of the presidential campaign. The reactions Friday to Obama's winning the prize tended to cast him as either a savior or a fraud, with little conversation in between. There was bewilderment and cynicism, hope and pride. Debate raged about who Obama is and what he will become.

Some called the prize the ultimate endorsement of a great president; others called it evidence that, once again, charisma had trumped results. Some called it a miracle; others called it a joke. Some believed Obama had earned the prize by uniting the country, rewriting black history and redeeming America in the eyes of the world; others said Obama had earned -- and accomplished -- nothing.

As for Obama himself, the man already burdened by so many expectations seemed to interpret the prize as one more promise to fulfill. He now belongs to a group whose membership includes Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, company that Obama said he does not "deserve." Only two other sitting U.S. presidents have shared the honor, and none who still had at least 39 months in office to fail or flourish under the weight of the world's biggest prize.

"I will accept this award as a call to action," Obama said.

Obama had never even known he was nominated for the prize. He was awoken by a phone call at 6 a.m. telling him he had won. It was not "how I expected to wake up," he said, and others who learned of the award soon thereafter experienced similar surprise. Robert R. Eberle, president of GOPUSA, assumed he was the victim of a practical joke. "Are you kidding me?" he wrote in an e-mail to employees.

But as the day wore on, bewilderment gave way to cynicism for many Republicans and some of Obama's opponents in Washington. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, announced that his publication would forgo its usual "Parody Page" and simply publish news of Obama's prize, because it was more ridiculous than anything editors could possibly make up. "Thank you, Nobel Committee, for making my job easier," Kristol said.

Republicans across the country reiterated the same critiques of Obama heard so often during the campaign. How could an award given for a lifetime of extraordinary achievement go to a man who was a junior U.S. senator at this time last year and an Illinois state senator five years ago? Had the Nobel Committee decided to honor aspirations instead of accomplishments, ambitions instead of realities?

"Like most liberals, the Nobel Committee seems to think that Obama's pretty words are a perfect substitute for him actually doing something," said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist. "But if pretty words alone could provide leadership, then why not just give the presidency and the Peace Prize to a Hemingway novel?"

Obama's supporters reacted with equal passion. Climate-change activists congratulated Obama and implored him to proceed directly from the award ceremony in Oslo to climate talks in Copenhagen. Supporters of his domestic agenda heralded the award as a momentum boost that would help Obama end the war in Iraq and pass health-care reform. World leaders sent congratulatory notes, including one from French President Nicolas Sarkozy that read: "Finally, it sets the seal on America's return to the heart of all the world's peoples."

Just as on Election Day, optimism spread as if contagious. Here, thanks to the Nobel Committee, was hope that Obama could unite not only Democrats and Republicans but the entire world. Here was hope that he could make sweeping changes in perceptions of race and religion. Here was hope that he had renewed America in the eyes of the world. Here was hope that more immense progress was still to come -- for climate change and nuclear weapons and the economy -- because, after all, the Nobel Committee had bet on Obama, and its job was to identify greatness.

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the Nobel Committee said.

Even the committee was summoning hope, a word used so regularly on Friday that it felt reminiscent of Obama's campaign. He spent 18 months drawing record crowds at campaign rallies, inspiring supporters to chant "Yes we can" and plaster red-white-and-blue HOPE posters on street lamps across the country. It was then that Obama started to become the man to whom people attached their own aspirations and definitions, a candidate not of accomplishment, not yet, but of an ever-growing mystique.

A year later, on the day when the mystique became greater than ever, Obama stepped up to the Rose Garden podium. After six minutes, he concluded that his award was shared by "everyone who strives for justice and dignity," and that "America will continue to lead." Then he turned away from the microphone and headed back to work -- back to two wars, a ruptured health-care system, a broken economy. The crowd at the White House shouted after him, but Obama walked into his house and left their questions unanswered.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company