Nobel Surprise

by Hendrik Hertzberg
from THE NEW YORKER

If President Obama really had to get a gift postmarked Scandinavia this month, he would probably, on the whole, have preferred the Olympics. At least at the Olympics the judges wait till after the race to give you the gold medal. They don’t force it on you while you’re still waiting for the bus to take you to the stadium. They don’t give it to you in anticipation of possible future feats of glory, like a signing bonus or an athletic scholarship. They don’t award it as a form of gentle encouragement, like a parent calling “Good job!” to a toddler who’s made it to the top rung of the monkey bars. It’s not a plastic, made-in-China “participation” trophy handed out to everyone in the class as part of a program to boost self-esteem. It’s not a door prize or a goody bag or a bowl of V.I.P. fruit courtesy of the hotel management. It’s not a gold star. It’s a gold medal.

We can take it as a sign of what a lucky fellow our President is that winning the Nobel Peace Prize has been widely counted a bad break for him. Barack Obama has come very far very fast. Five years ago, not long after finishing a distant second for a Chicago congressional nomination, he was still one of the hundred and seventy-seven members of the Illinois state legislature. Four years ago, he took his seat in the United States Senate, ushered there not only by his own undoubted talents but also by the serial self-destruction of his opponents. One year ago, he won the Presidency with a margin of victory—nine and a half million votes—that was the largest since 1984; absent the tailwind provided by his predecessor’s abysmal record, however, that margin would have been far smaller, possibly even nonexistent. He is certainly one of fortune’s favorites. He came into office on a tide of euphoria. Lately, though, his supporters have been experiencing a vague sense of disappointment. He may have saved the world from a second Great Depression and all that, but the jobless rate keeps on climbing, the planet keeps on heating up, Guantánamo keeps on not getting closed, and roadside bombs keep on exploding. He’s had eight whole months, and he still hasn’t signed a comprehensive health-care bill. Given that his perceived political problem is exaggerated expectations, does he really need a Nobel Peace Prize before he has actually made any peace? more

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