The White House must be a bit perplexed about how to respond to the bizarre decision of the Nobel committee today. It carries risks for them, because it seems to be causing everyone to say “for what?” which is not a question they want asked just now. As last weekend’s Saturday Night Live showed, it’s a question that’s beginning to nag some on the left.
The prize, and the question, also risk awakening with a vengeance the notorious good sense of the American public, and its democratic intolerance for pompous arrogance and nonsense. In its fatigue with Republicans, and its unease with John McCain’s erratic and empty campaign, the voting public gave Obama a comfortable victory last year, but only the young and the silly really went in for the whole cult of personality. It has seemed at several telling moments this year, however, as though Obama himself and his circle were among those that believed it all, and remain so: Their enormous faith in the power of Obama as a messenger and presence, the sense that the world would change its attitude about America simply because he was there, the endless stream of first person pronouns. We might have thought the falling poll ratings would check this attitude somewhat, but Obama’s words and deeds — the Olympics fiasco, for instance — suggest otherwise. Now this odd moment could force the administration to face the matter one way or another. It compels all reasonably sensible people to say “come on, really?!” and it challenges Obama and his circle to assure the country that they are not delusional. It’s hard to know quite what the right response would be, but it would probably require a self-effacing show of humility (including declining the prize) that our president may not even be able to fake, let alone actually exhibit. It is a dangerous thing for a president to become a joke, and between his Olympic Committee trip and this peculiar honor, he’s getting there fast, and in a way that could do him real harm.
I wonder if any commentator, anywhere on the political spectrum, will offer a genuine straight-faced defense or case for this prize. Whoever does will no-doubt win next year’s Nobel Prize for literature.