Obama’s Pyrrhic Prize

On Obama and when winning isn't really winning.

Posted Oct 09, 2009

If my morning radio talk shows, workplace chatter, and Facebook news feed are to be trusted, the big topic of discussion this weekend is going to be Barack Obama's surprising win of the Nobel Peace Prize. Specifically, the first question most people are turning to–that is, after, wait, are you serious?–is whether this honor will help or hurt Obama politically.

It's a social psychological question to be sure, especially since the awards committee seems to be using this selection as an attempt to encourage and bolster Obama's international agenda. And as with any effort at persuasion, you have to examine the issue of source credibility.

This will hardly come as an earthshattering revelation, but the more credible a source is, the more successful its effort at persuasion is likely to be. Sometimes the audience isn't that motivated to think too hard about credibility–that's where celebrity endorsements come in. But credibility matters.

How credible is the Nobel Committee? On the one hand, they bestow a prestigious award with tremendous name recognition. One the other, it's a committee that honored Henry Kissenger for his work in Southeast Asia and Yassir Arafat for his endeavors in the Middle East.

So you might suggest that this most recent news will serve as a Rorschach Test of sorts, with people's reaction to the inkblot revealing their political leanings. The Disciples of Hannity (perhaps Apostles of Beck?) will inevitably see the news as confirming that Obama is all style and no substance and has been anointed by a left-leaning, politically-correct conspiracy that now seems to span an entire globe. And the bleeding-heart, socialist crowd will view this as confirmation that Obama is, as advertised, the second coming.

But the most interesting aspect of all of this is that I don't think the latter of those two reactions is materializing right now. Most of the pro-Obama crowd I've read, heard from, and talked to is surprised as well. And nervous to boot. Because even the most ardent Obama supporter has to admit that he's still shorter on accomplishment than on promise, and they're worried that this award will only fuel the fire of the style-over-substance critique.

If you ask me, this is the issue that should concern the Nobel Committee, given their apparent goals for today's announcement. Because, yes, source credibility matters. But so does your audience. And when your preaching surprises and even distresses the choir, you may have a backlash problem on your hands.  Not to mention the risk that all your future selections will be dismissed out of hand as well in some quarters, based on the precedent of this year's choice.

It's the very same principle that has shaped my decision to wait until at least next year before nominating the Beyonce-dancing baby from youtube for an MTV video award. Too much, too soon, amazing dancing baby. Too much, too soon.