A Conciliatory Consolation Prize

Posted: Oct 15, 2009 10:33 AM

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama was so enigmatic that it skipped bad and went to laughable ... a punch line to a joke.

Part of the humor is due to the timing. A week before, on Friday, Oct. 2, the International Olympic Committee in the first round of voting had eliminated Chicago from the list of cities it was considering for the 2016 games. It was breathtaking, inexplicable and unimaginable -- a rebuke to the American president who had gone to pitch his adopted city to the IOC and come home empty-handed.

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A week before, Obama had declared he would not go to Copenhagen to help Chicago in its bid. Instead, he would leave the pitch in the capable hands of his wife.

But three days out, Obama changed his mind, announcing he would indeed travel to Copenhagen to help clinch the victory for the Windy City. It seemed like a safe play -- first time a U.S. president goes to pitch a U.S. city for the Olympics -- it was sure to garner support and IOC votes

Surrounded by tough issues like Afghanistan, health care and rising unemployment while falling in the polls, Obama must have thought the Olympic bid was a safe, positive move that would make him a hometown hero.

But that's now how others perceived the Obamas' efforts. During her pitch to the IOC, "Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns 'I' or 'me' 44 times," in 41 sentences according to George Will's column, "First couple all about first-person pronouns." President Obama used "I" or me" 26 times in 48 sentences. Combined, this adds to "70 times in 89 sentences."

The IOC members may have realized that the Obamas' bid was not about Chicago, but about the Obamas themselves. Alas, whatever the reasoning, a Chicago victory was not to be.

One week later, Obama woke up to the news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The press release from the Nobel Committee noted that this prize was awarded "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. ... His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

This is inconsistent with Alfred Nobel's will that Nobel Prizes are to be dedicated to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

The criteria for awarding the prize include the "most or best work." This is the second part of the humor. With no real body of work to point to, Obama was awarded the prize based on his "extraordinary efforts."

It was a prize of encouragement rather than an award for accomplishment.

Previous Nobel Prize winners made us stretch to become better, to emulate the work and courage they had displayed. Mother Teresa lived and worked with the poor for 30 years; Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years but continued to spread his message of peace and reconciliation.

The previous United States presidents who were awarded the prize were recognized only after they had demonstrated hard work and accomplishments in specific areas. Woodrow Wilson helped create the League of Nations; Theodore Roosevelt crafted peace between Russia and Japan; and Jimmy Carter helped fashion the Camp David Accords.

Metrics, goals, accomplishments -- these words sound so businessey, so hard and hemmed in. They are more operational than inspirational.

For Obama, a man known for his ability to inspire, the trick will be whether he can transition from being an inspirational leader to an operational one. Without real accomplishments, his ongoing exhortations will begin to ring hollow in Americans' ears.

The appeasing comfort prize will provide Obama and other Americans with little reassurance.