The Nobel Prize albatross

DECEMBER 10, 2009
Statesman role could weigh on Obama
    “A statesman is a politician who has been dead for 15 years” — an old political saying, famously cited to President Harry Truman and Speaker Thomas Reed
    Barack Obama’s solid speech in accepting the surprise Nobel Peace Prize will probably not mitigate the derision of his victory from his opponents and commentators. These attacks almost were not what the Nobel Committee had in mind. While there is no obvious peace-related triumph to explain why they made the choice, the selection committee must have thought that the award would help Obama politically.
    Perhaps, in their view, he would be able to bolster his political position by touting his success at winning over foreign observers. If this was their goal, it will almost certainly not work. The reality is that being feted by the international community is not feather in a political cap. It is instead an electoral albatross.
    In his acceptance speech in Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize, U.S. President Barack Obama made the argument that force is sometimes needed to achieve peace. The News Hub panel discusses whether the speech was successful.
    As we saw in his successful campaign, Obama is well aware that as a general rule voters do not cast their ballots based on foreign policy. There is no surer sign of a losing candidate than one who spends a good deal of time talking about what they can do on the international scene. As poll after poll shows, the economy is what decides elections. Like most successful politicians, Obama took this to heart, not wasting much of his campaign energy or time on international matters. While he dealt with the two wars and talked about foreign affairs with select interest groups, they were ancillary to his campaign.
    Following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors, he focused on vague promises of “change” and improvements in basic bread-and-butter domestic issues, such as revamping health care and increasing jobs.
    By necessity, every president has to deal with foreign policy questions — in fact, it is arguably the key part of their job — but few want to go into a reelection campaign with international successes or even foreign engagement as their main theme. A sitting president focused on foreign affairs could be seen as out of touch with the concerns of the average voter, ala George H.W. Bush in 1992. This is not just a presidential issue. There is a good reason that most senators and congressional representatives focus their campaigns on pork barrel politics.
    With that in mind, what will the Nobel Prize mean for the key swing voters in the purple “must-win” states like Ohio or Virginia? Nothing good. The Republicans will try to use it as an anchor against Democrats in 2010 and against Obama himself in 2012.
    They have already started making the argument that the premature Nobel shows that he is a style over substance politician with little to show in the way of accomplishments. But as elections get closer, they very well might try to use a harsher line — namely that Obama was more focused on foreign approval and his own popularity than on boosting America’s economy.
    This is a powerful argument to make in the Rust Belt states, many voters there already feel abandoned by the decimation of the manufacturing sector. Every serious presidential candidate either explicitly or implicitly tells unions and Midwestern audiences that they will adopt a more protectionist foreign policy in order to protect the dwindling manufacturing jobs. For a variety of practical reasons, every single president quickly abandons this position once they get in to office. Come reelection time, the president attempts to explain away this discrepancy. It is critical that voters do not believe that he is focused on foreign acceptance at the cost of jobs.
    And that’s what a Nobel Prize may mean in an upcoming election. Few struggling or out of work voters will take much comfort in whether or not America has improved its popularity on the international scene. They are more likely to be swayed by the argument that the popularity came at their own economic expense.
    Truman’s adage is as true to day as ever. Any politician focused on being a statesman is as good as a dead one. Obama surely knows this. He may not have turned down the Nobel Prize, but he likely knows that it is a dangerous award to have received.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and lawyer, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.