President Barack Obama’s nomination and selection as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient cannot be understated. President Obama becomes the first sitting United States President to win the award in ninety years. Notably, many historic figures past and current that Americans and the globe appear to idolize have not won the award. Moreover, given the list of accomplishments and efforts of previous presidents, President Obama’s selection may be an enigma for some.
However, in an attempt to briefly explain why President Obama’s efforts that won him the award are similar yet significantly distinct from the actions of others comparable, let us review some of the efforts and accomplishments of other U.S. presidents.
President Hoover did not win for efforts to feed the politically unpopular and eradicate poverty. President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not win though he was instrumental in bringing a gradual end to the U.S. Depression, established Social Security, was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and oversaw U.S. military actions in World War II. President Truman did not win after ordering the complete desegregation of the U.S. armed forces nor did President Eisenhower for his effort to integrate Little Rock Central High School in the midst of America’s racial turmoil.
President Kennedy did not win even though he tried to decrease the presence of nuclear weapons, helped prevent a Cuban Missile Crisis, vastly supported equal, civil and human rights and sought to eliminate poverty. President Johnson did not win for his efforts in Vietnam or for his ability to enact many of his predecessor’s goals. President Reagan did not win even though he successfully negotiated a treaty to eliminate intermediate range nuclear missiles with the then Soviet leader. Even given his success in the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush never won either. President Clinton has not (yet?) won the award despite his national initiative to end racial discrimination, his role in establishing AmeriCorps, and his commitment to an expanded NATO while in office or his post-presidency efforts with the vitally important Clinton Global Initiative. Finally, President’s George W. Bush’s costly initiative against a war on terrorism did not lead him to Nobel victory either.
What makes President Obama's selection significant is that while he has yet to amass the list of comparable substantive achievements of his predecessors, he has been able to do in a short time what they all were unable to do. The fostering of immediate global impact and the effect of effort. In other words, how President Obama has articulated the global importance of hope, change, prosperity and peace is starkly different from yet simultaneously uniquely comparable to previous presidents' substantive successes. How President Obama chose to transfer his message and the immediate global effect of that message is something no previous president has accomplished. The domestic and global effects of that seemingly reverberating transmission of goals is as powerful as any major substantive result.
For example, domestically, the purported increase in volunteerism many scholars, non-profit leaders, and pundits have directly or indirectly attributed to President Obama's call to service in signing The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act last April and his creation of the United We Serve initiative. In fact, the President next week is expected to join with former President George H.W. Bush and the Points of Light Institute to host a Presidential Forum on Service at Texas A&M University to honor presidential efforts to increase volunteerism. The impact those thousands of new volunteers have daily on the lives of others is real. As history informs, it is wise not to doubt the impact of inspiration.
Therefore, President Barack Obama’s nomination is unlike each of the potential ‘wins’ of those other presidents. As the first President of the United States who is not a White male and whose electoral and governing style embraces a powerful rhetoric of hope and prosperity, Obama’s nomination and victory speaks to more than his efforts as President as it does his galvanizing ability to capture the world’s attention. His success on the world global stage began well before his presidency and will continue much afterward likely no matter the results. The reason for this is because President Obama’s message, though at this point is short on significant substantive successes, is a message of serious effort and attention to national and global crises that have long been ignored by the Office of the Presidency or that have been addressed in uninspiring initiatives.
For example, for the first time in the history of American presidential politics, a candidate underscored the long-stated link between the errors of the U.S. Constitution, significant yet morally disastrous Supreme Court decisions, slavery, second-class citizenship, the failures of this nation’s founders, and the lasting impact of that legacy in a context that made the topic of race clearly important to all who listened. With nearly two million YouTube viewers, the vast impact is transparent.
Many will point to President Obama’s short tenure in office as a signal that this award he does not deserve and that the award itself has lost meaning. However, before one draws a conclusion based on his record solely as president, they should not forget his “record” and powerful voice as a candidate for the presidency – one who took the global stage by storm and transformed it even before he took office. He, in fact, led a movement to the office, which is in part why no opposition was evenly tooled to defeat him. Yes, his re-election will be measured on more substantive norms and details, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize will likely raise even higher expectations of a historic presidency that already suffers as a result of extraordinarily high expectations from all U.S. citizens, (but especially U.S. Blacks) and many across the globe who cling to President Obama’s message.
Yet, even though the expectations will remain impossibly high and he has yet to complete much of his agenda, his efforts at domestic and global peace today should not go unnoticed simply because he has more work to do. Understandably, for many the United States remains a systemically-founded imperialistic, racist, sexist, capitalist country of White male global dominance wherein a structure of inequality still exists. However, while elements of our ugly past persist, Americans and humanity across the globe should all be careful to remember that the effort at establishing peace can be just as powerful as the substantive results thereof, particularly when the individual is one who symbolizes a shift in America’s racial order that has long plagued the country.
Finally, President Obama’s selection as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner makes even more poignant the substantive power and ironic substance of symbolic politics. Generally speaking, politics has the power and potential to inspire people. However, the best stewards of that political strength are those persons able to organize an unprecedented number of supporters and followers, and use the new platform as an opportunity to make significant strides toward lasting change all the while changing individual lives in the process.
Either as a result of substantive plans yet to be realized or simply because the spirit of peace many say he now represents, President Obama exemplifies the hope and spirit on which the Nobel Peace Prize was founded. Consequently, although incomplete, President Obama’s efforts meet that spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, perhaps it is best to award the president the prize before his record is completely established given that one's merits for the honor is not limited to the results achieved but also includes the global impact the efforts generate.
For that, he is an obvious choice.
The Nobel Peace Prize is a worthy accomplishment for President Obama and for the United States of America not because of Mr. Obama’s substantive global results given ten months in office, but because of his rapid and substantive global impact and effect.
Ravi Perry, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Government at Clark University.