He’s the Nobel Peace Prize winner who just ordered 30,000 more troops to war. He’s the laureate who says he doesn’t deserve the award. He’s not quite 11 months on the job and already in the company of Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.
This is President Barack Obama’s Nobel moment, an immense honor shadowed by awkward timing.
When Obama leaves for Oslo, Norway, on Wednesday to be lauded for his style of international diplomacy, he goes knowing that the American people are more concerned about something else: peace of mind.
The economy has left millions of them hurting. The mood of the country is dispirited — more people than not think the nation is going in the wrong direction — and soothing news is tough to find. Unemployment is in double digits even as the bleeding of jobs has slowed.
Meanwhile, there is no hiding the contrast of war and peace.
The memory is only days’ old of Obama’s address at West Point, where he told cadets and the rest of the world that he was escalating the war in Afghanistan so he could stabilize it and then try to end it. Under his watch, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has grown from 34,000 to around 70,000, and now, is on its way to about 100,000.
All that is the backdrop for the imagery the world is about see: an American president to be toasted for peace, awarded a storied Nobel medal, treated to a torch-lit procession and feted at a five-course banquet filled with people in tuxedos and gowns.
Never in the 108-year history of one of the world’s most prestigious awards has it gone to a chief executive anywhere so early in his tenure.
The reaction back home could be delicate. A Gallup poll shortly after Obama won the award in October found 61 percent of Americans did not believe he deserved it. People were split along partisan lines on whether they were happy for him.
This could be end up being a moment of true American pride, but restraint has defined the White House reaction.
Obama will be in and out of Oslo in about a day.
It’s no coincidence that Obama’s schedule ahead of his trip is packed with events to show he is grounded in economic reality: a jobs summit one day, a pep talk in Pennsylvania the next and a speech on his latest jobs-creation plan just one day before he leaves.
As for the award, Obama says it’s not really about him.
On the morning eight weeks ago when the news caught the world by surprise, Obama called it an affirmation of American leadership “on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.” He said he viewed it as a call to action for every country to take on big challenges together.
Since then, the prize has receive scant mention by a White House intent on keeping the focus on its sprawling agenda.
But the Nobel committee says the award is, in fact, about Obama.
The reaction was so loud in so many ways — joyous, critical, bewildered — that panel members broke their usual silence to defend their unanimous selection.
“Alfred Nobel wrote that the prize should go to the person who has contributed most to the development of peace in the previous year,” said the committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland. “Who has done more for that than Barack Obama?”
In choosing Obama, the panel cited his work toward a world free of nuclear weapons; for a more engaged U.S. role in combating global warming; for his support of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy; and for broadly capturing the attention of the world and giving its people “hope.”
Clearly, the award meant to promote those efforts as much to reward them. Obama was in office a mere 12 days when the nomination deadline hit for this year’s award hit. He had been in office for less than nine months when he was named a Nobel laureate.
With so many enormous, inherited problems remaining far from resolution — nuclear standoffs in Iran and North Korea, clashes in the Mideast, a binding world deal on climate change — many observers eager for tangible progress came away stunned.
Obama put it this way: “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments.”
Since the tradition began in 1901, 90 Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded, sometimes shared among people and organizations.
Many have been distinguished peace leaders or groups not famously known. Some Nobel winners have ended conflicts, reshaped how people view the world and become revered for courage and change, such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
These days, U.S. presidents are associated with honoring Nobel winners, not becoming them. It has been 90 years since a sitting U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, won the honor in 1919. Theodore Roosevelt was the only other sitting U.S. president to get the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1906.
Yet former President Jimmy Carter in 2002, former Vice President Al Gore in 2007 and now Obama — all Democrats — have won the award this decade alone for their various efforts. When the committee said Obama won for creating a “new climate in international politics,” that was largely seen as a swipe by the Nobel committee at former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Obama is expected to be accompanied in Oslo by some family and close friends.
On Thursday, when he accepts the award at the City Hall in Oslo, he will have his own chance to tell the world what it means to him.
In a time of war and recession.
AP News Researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Nobel background: http://nobelprize.org/