Obama in power (12): more on that prize

It wasn’t Obama’s fault. He didn’t pick him and so far as we know there was no lobbying though that is common behaviour by would-be laureates and their friends.  Once the prize was announced he would have been churlish to turn it down. His dignified acceptance and remarks about the other worthy nominees struck the right note. But…

Had the White House got wind of this beforehand I am certain they would have politely headed it off.

The issue is not whether Obama deserves the award but whether other people in the political world in which Obama operates think he deserves the award. It’s a subtle difference especially when the award is partly given for how Obama has changed the atmosphere (i.e., how he has influenced perceptions) but it counts.

There is a steady drumbeat in newspapers, radio, talkshows and political argument in the US that Obama is a young president, an inexperienced politician, blessed with good looks and eloquence, beloved around, who talks the talk but, really, what has he done?

And because that issue of tangible achievement is real, the drumbeat has resonance. It’s all very well for those who agree with Obama on very many issues to emphasise the change he has achieved in atmosphere, in US relations with Russia, and in expectations and hope. But where are the peace agreement, the non-nuclear treaty, the end of war, the formal acceptance of full nuclear inspections? Where come to that is full US commitment to a treaty that commits us all to slashing carbon emissions?

People in Europe who want to believe that none of this matters as much as the hope has given us all need to look at what is happening now in the US where comment about the lack of achievement shows early signs of spreading into other parts of the political spectrum. Centre-ground Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has questioned whether Obama is strong enough to be President, saying he earns affection without awe. Reportedly Saturday Night Live, last heard of skewering Sarah Palin, has now had a got at Obama, painting him as the do-nothing President.

This issue needs to be understood as two-sided: it’s the balance of promise vs achievement in which Obama is weighed and, by some found wanting. If the promise get’s scaled up, automatically and logically the scale of achievement needed to balance that promise also increases. Tone down the promises and you get a balance at a lower level of achievement.

The problem Obama faces when the balance is wrong concerns both his ability to do deals in Congress to get his policies backed and legislation through, and his ability to protect the democrats’ Congressional majorities in next year’s off-year elections.

Now the Norwegian Nobel Committee has just scaled up on the promise side. That is to say, they have added to his problems.  It may be an award for Obama, it may honour him, but it is no gift and they have done him no favours.

And anyway, if and when, as I hope, he does achieve a breakthrough in nuclear arms reductions, climate change or peace in the Middle East – then what do they give him?

3 responses to “Obama in power (12): more on that prize

  1. So, in essence what you’re saying is that the problem isn’t with Obama, but with the US senate. That smacks of politics getting in the way of doing the right thing – something I’m sure a significant proportion of the world’s population is sick of right now. But more than that, this is an example of a larger, more inherent problem with the politics system, not just in the US, but around the world. Rather than have a politician that sets low targets and achieves them, is it not better to have a politician that wants to achieve the big things, and ultimately make the world better, rather than leave it as he found it? And if they fall short of an ideal, but achieve significantly more than they hypothetically would have than before, is that not better overall?

  2. Hi Matt and thanks for the comment. But this is not about politics getting in the way of doing the right thing. Political leaders have to take account of political realities in trying to transform dream and manifesto into actuality. Successful political leaders manage to push the envelope of the possible; unsuccessful ones succumb to the power of the envelope and over-compromise. These thoughts apply to leaders and political programmes of any colour, regardless of whether you or I approve. Successful political leaders play smart as they push the envelope so they try not to strengthen it against them. What the Norwegian Nobel Committee did is strengthen the envelope against Obama. For those who support his programme this was not a clever move.

  3. Good piece from Naomi Klein on the (side-)effects of the Obama administration, in this case on international climate change negotiations:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/oct/16/obama-isnt-helping

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