Obama's Nobel speech

Kevin Huffman
America's Next Top Pundit winner
Friday, December 11, 2009; 1:00 PM

Kevin Huffman, the winner of the America's Next Great Pundit competition, will be online Friday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his column on Obama's Nobel speech.

A transcript follows.

Read and watch Huffman's work.

Huffman is a Teach for America executive and a former lawyer and first-grade teacher. An Ohio native, he lives in Washington and finds the city puzzling, amusing and amazing.


Northern Virginia: My worry is that not as many news consumers are getting exposed to these speeches -- how does that affect their effectiveness and game-changing ability?

Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia was carried live across all networks, as I recall. My belief is that it was assumed ahead of time to be the equivalent of Governor Sanford's melt-down news conference and that Obama's campaign was circling the drain. So of course it got live coverage, like a car crash or a fire. And then the switcheroo--a speech that probably made the history books.

By contrast, the Today Show claimed they would carry the Nobel speech live, and then it was delayed a few minutes, and they didn't carry even a second of it live. Just a few recorded clips out of context later on. Does this indifference by the media mean he can't pull it off anymore? Tell me he can, please!

Kevin Huffman: Hi - Excited to be here to talk Obama or punditry.

This seems like a good place to start. I think your point is interesting. Obviously he suffered by having the speech at 7:30 in the morning here, but it still would seem to be a major network news event. In this case, I think the media at some level bought into the "he didn't deserve the award" rhetoric (which had a fair amount of legitimacy in my view) and let that color the extent to which this was viewed as news.

Love your point that the Philly race speech was carried more because the media thought it would be bad than because they anticipated a great speech - that is interesting.


San Francisco bay area: Why do you think many who voted for Obama are disappointed and increasingly unlikely to support his reelection.

While I am very disappointed Obama does not support genuine, comprehensive health care reform and has decided upon unnecessary, significant military escalation in Afghanistan, above all he does not seem, as president, despite his campaign of hope and change, any different, in substance, as opposed to oratory, from his recent predecessors. I was hoping and expecting Obama would at least try to keep his promises and not be arrogant.

However, he seems to be a typical politician, who makes campaign promises, only to break many of them after taking office. Obama has developed excess hubris, once he makes a decision he speaks as though his is the only way, belittling other options, whether in domestic or foreign policies. He tries in his major speeches to try to please everyone at least a little, raising the question as to what are, if any, his true principles.

Kevin Huffman: I disagree on two counts. First of all, all but the farthest left, most disillusioned are going to vote for him. People remember Nader in 2000 and they remember the last 8 years so I find it hard to believe that many people will stay home.

But second, I think progressives assumed in the campaign mania that Obama was more liberal than he is. The guy is a pragmatist, and he faces hard political realities. Every politician will break promises, some out of cynicism but some because they have to make hard choices.


Newport News, Va.: Do you think this speech reflected Obama's deeply held principles, or do you think this was in reaction to the right wing voices claiming he's soft? How does it square, for example, with his writings from before he ran for President?

Kevin Huffman: Good question. I would choose a third choice. I suspect that his views have changed, but not because he is caving to the right. He's president now, getting security briefings every morning, with access to new information. I don't see him as a cave-to-the-right kind of guy - he strikes me as someone who is willing to change with new information, less out of political calculus and more out of developing a nuanced view.


Chicago: Have you noticed that Obama used his most usual script, bashing the folks he is talking to?

Kevin Huffman: I'm trying to think of other examples. Can you think of some? I don't remember any Clintonian Sister Souljah moments from him but tell me if I am missing them.


Firenze, Italy: Hi Kevin,

I just watched President Obama accept the Nobel Peace Prize online via the NY Times video feed.

Quick question: Do you think Americans are ready, willing and able to sacrifice for a "just war" and cleaner environment to create lasting peace, prosperity and liberty in the world, as President Obama called us to do in his speech?

Cheers and very best regards, American expat

Kevin Huffman: Hello expat. This is a deep question. On the one hand I would say yes. Post 9-11 I think people were ready to sacrifice and waiting for the call that didn't come. I remember watching Bush, who I didn't vote for, address Congress post 9-11 and feeling an enormous sense of patriotism and desire to follow his leadership. But then no call came.

My worry is that we increasingly live in a world where people can't agree on a common fact base. And if you can't agree on facts - not how to respond to them but the facts themselves - it's hard to see how you ever get to agreement on justice or urgency.


Atlanta: You repeated the oft-regurgitated claim that "unlike Bush, Obama listens to allies and critics". Obama might listen more to France and Germany, but he sure has not listened very well to the UK, Israel, India, Pakistan and Japan. Why do Obama's supporters choose to ignore the fact that Obama has had poor relations with the countries that actually help the US and that his entreaties to France and Germany have produced no tangible results?

Kevin Huffman: I think this is rooted in a fair critique both of the president and his campaign rhetoric - namely that simply showing up and talking to people and being not-Bush isn't enough to get tangible results. International diplomacy is hard. Simply extending the hand and being willing to engage is necessary but insufficient.

I don't know that Obama has had "poor relations" with the countries that actually help the U.S. Of the countries you list, several have complicated domestic political challenges and changes in government in the last couple of years that have changed the equation. And Obama clearly has extended the list of countries we are talking to which seems like a good start for year one.

Surprised there are no punditry or contest questions coming in - this is a serious crowd!


Raleigh, N.C.: Up until now, I have been indifferent or even allergic to Obama-mania, believing that there was a P.T. Barnum quality to all the adulation. But after his Nobel Lecture, I am among the converted. This guy really gets it. War is only a valid weapon against otherwise insurmountable evil, yet war itself is evil. Our President grappled with this paradox in a way that showed that he is more than a brand, he is an historic figure who may one day stand along side those few who were both great and good.

Kevin Huffman: First of all, let's be clear: there IS a PT Barnum quality to the adulation. Actually, it's sometimes worse than circus quality and has an outer edge of hostility. If you supported Hillary in the primaries, you know what I mean.

That said, it's important to distinguish between the man and the adulation, and as you said, Obama really seems to grapple with the issues and not simply parrot what people want to hear. I think the Nobel Committee wanted him to roll in and talk about the UN and international diplomacy (which he did, rightfully) but probably didn't anticipate the end product of what must have been months of soul searching about how to reconcile the need for war and the aspiration for peace. It was a fascinating moment, no?


Kevin Huffman: The questions have slowed to a halt. What, am I up against Mike Wilbon right now or something?


Shepherd Park, DC: OK, here's a pundit-related question. Would you describe where you're coming from, your point of view, for someone who has not followed the pundit contest? And separate from your POV, what is your writing style?

Kevin Huffman: Hi - political point of view is center-left. I keep feeling like if the republicans were competent, they would have been able to compete for my vote (plus I can't stomach the crazy wing). My leftie friends threaten to move to Canada (or did for the last 8 years), I threaten to become a republican. Neither actually happens.

Writing style: usually more light, looking for the humor (often unintended) underlying current events. Yesterday's column was my most serious work yet and honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about that.


Portland, Ore.: Kevin...have you ever served in the military? I only ask this because, compared to previous generations, so few Americans have.

Kevin Huffman: No. Coming out of college, I joined Teach For America and taught in the inner-city for three years, which I raise mainly because I think domestic national service is on the rise in the younger generations. I'd be interested to see polling about attitudes among teens and 20-somethings today compared to the past both for military and domestic service.


Los Angeles, CA: Regarding your article on "The Palin take on health-care costs" and you losing "track of what I'm supposed to be angry about," maybe a point to resume your concern is for you to focus the following data. The US healthcare bill was 5.2% of GDP in 1960, 9.1% by 1980, 12.3% in 1990, 16.2% in 2007 and 16.6% in 2008 -- over 4 times defense spending. At its current 6.1% annual growth rate, it'll consume over 20% by 2018 -- like an abyss draining money from other sectors of the economy.

Healthcare spending is fueled by provider incentives to increase services and charges, industry inefficiencies, fraud and abuse, and by patients' demands for more costly services (e.g., in vitro fertilization). Americans' lifestyle habits/choices affect healthcare costs (e.g., eating healthier diets, wearing seatbelts and eliminating smoking would lower costs). Without significant changes, which the reforms currently being considered are aimed at doing, Healthcare spending will continue eroding the profits of companies providing employee health benefits and personal disposable income of workers (e.g., healthcare costs are increasing 3 times faster than wages).

Kevin Huffman: Hi. Agree completely on the rise of costs. However, the thing that astonished me about Palin's take on the mammogram report is how completely un-conservative it is. I find many conservatives' take on health care completely unserious right now because they are NOT rooted in the hard realities of cost containment. There is way too much of the "we should be able to get any procedure we want and not have to pay for it" coming out of the conservative camp because they threw in with the death-panel crowd.


Clearwater, Fla.: Congrats on winning the pundit contest Kevin! What was the experience of writing your first official column like?

Kevin Huffman: Much harder than I would have guessed. a) starting from a blank slate. b) trying to find something interesting when everyone was talking about the same speech. c) the editing process - which we had none of during the contest.

I learned a lot; hopefully I will get better over the course of my 13 week run!


Washington, D.C.: If you had to come up with a joke about Obama's Nobel speech, what would it be?

Kevin Huffman: Barack Obama, Thorbjorn Jagland and the Dalai Lama are manning the predator drone controls. The Dalai Lama says...

actually I can't do it. I bet I'll have one three minutes too late!


Washington, D.C.: Do you see any parallels between the Democrats abandoning the public option and Obama embracing war for peace's sake?

Kevin Huffman: Interesting. At some level yes - I think increasingly some democrats including perhaps Obama are thinking, "If we have to drop the public option in order to get millions more people covered, it's worth it." but that is more of a political calculus and I think war-for-peace is more of a moral calculus. Though in both cases it is looking at a series of bad choices and picking the one likely to yield the best results under the circumstances.


Arlington, Va.: So are you also going to pop up in the dead tree edition?

Kevin Huffman: Yeah, I think so - think it's going to depend on who else is writing on a particular day. Here is an intersting commentary on the media world today. My blog post from earlier in the week went into the paper edition. Do you know how many people emailed or told me that they had read it in the paper? zero. I didn't even know it was in there until yesterday. And lots of people read it on-line.


re poor relations: What Atlanta says is true, when Manmohan Singh was here Obama even engineered gate crashers to take the attention away from the first State Dinner of his presidency....(snark).

Kevin Huffman: That was beyond the pale. Though honestly, he should have had the gate crasher do her fake "Hail to the Redskins" routine for the guests.


Richmond, Va.: "Surprised there are no punditry or contest questions coming in - this is a serious crowd! "

The election is over. We've moved on. I would ask how you feel your perspective is different than other Washington Post Op-Ed writers. Without getting into a tiresome discussion on diversity, I feel that a lot of your commentary could just has easily come from Ezra Klein or several other existing moderately left of center commentators.

For the record, my choice was Maame Gyamfi.

Kevin Huffman: Maame was good. Really good. I hope she gets a forum.

Eh, I have 13 weeks to write. I'm hoping I will sound sufficiently unique. We shall see.


Long Island, N.Y.: great column. throughout the contest, I sensed that your life experiences as a lawyer and teacher informed your thoughts. As I listened the speech, I had a feeling this was going to become a flashpoint in his presidency, as well as a global "moment" for those who look to our leadership (whether for the better or worse.) Just as I believe your background as an attorney brought an idealism about justice to the Teach for America program, how did your experience in education inspire your thoughts about the speech as you listened?

Kevin Huffman: First of all, thanks!

This may be more 10,000 foot up than you are asking, but one thing I have realized in education is that the right answers rarely follow a clear left vs right (politically speaking) divide. In education, it's almost irrelevant and unhelpful, from my perspective, to come at an issue from a traditional dem vs repub perspective. And as I watched the speech, I felt like Obama didn't feel constrained to answer as a "Democrat" he was answering as Barack Obama, American president and Nobel Prize winner. Which I greatly admired.


Yorktown, Va.: I agree with your comment on the common fact base. Having attended the town hall meetings and being disappointed at the acrimony, I was also struck with how many people, when told statistics, said "I don't believe that". It goes with "Liar!" I don't know how one breaks through such resistance to facts that are in conflict with one's beliefs.

Kevin Huffman: This worries me too. People have a right to their own opinions, not their own facts. And increasingly in the modern world, people can isolate themselves with others who think the same things they do. It's tough to break through to an unreceptive audience.


Chucky-el: Kevin, Your writing is a maddening back and forth swing between NeoCon nuts and Moderate realism. It is neither Fair and Balanced nor a presentation of conflicitng facts. For example:

"gratuitous conservative-bashing" Exactly the same thing Fox news call facts.

"through it all, the forward march of the president." Right on target, should have been your lead.

Do you understand mixing the two destroys the story linean, leaving the reader confused?

Kevin Huffman: This implies that either the left or the right has the right read in any given issue. My own view is sometimes that is the case, sometimes it isn't.


Fairfax County, Va.: Actually, I thought your take on the Nobel speech was the most refreshing I read anywhere. I think the Post is on to something in bringing in a fresh pair of outsider eyes.

Other columnists either cast him as a born-again George W. Bush or as an escalationist or ... you get the picture. They had a fore-ordained frame for the guy and they clicked him right into it without thinking about the speech. Even the ones who like him.

Your point stepped outside that kneejerk process.

Kevin Huffman: Thank you! I hope I can say something different - that is kind of the point of the contest (I think?).


Washington, DC: Any advice for the Redskins?

Kevin Huffman: Best ever sports quote. When the '76 Tampa Bay Bucs were winless, after one brutal loss, a reporter asked the coach, "Coach, how do you feel about the team's execution?"

Coach: "I'm in favor of it."


What, am I up against Mike Wilbon right now or something?: Worse, Carolyn Hax.

Kevin Huffman: Figures.


Washington, DC: Do you think Obama's critics on the right are more pronounced then they have been for other Democratic presidents in recent years? If so, why?

Kevin Huffman:

I think this is an important question. I don't think so. I think it was just as bad with Clinton. There is maybe a difference in volume because of the media cycle, Fox News, the intenet. But I honestly think this is just in keeping with the longstanding tradition of right wing hatred of democratic presidents. There are new facets to drive new attacks. But it's worth remembering that this isn't new.


Kevin Huffman: That's all - this was fun. Thanks for all the thoughtful questions and sorry I didn't get to all of them.


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