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Assessing Obama’s Nobel Acceptance Speech

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

By saluting “citizens of America” before “citizens of the world,” President Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was addressed to the conservative side of his domestic audience, who have waited and waited and finally heard him say what they wanted to hear, “For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.” No surprises then, that even though this speech contained a good number of potential applause lines, it generated much less applause from his audience at Oslo City Hall than it did back home. Obama wasn’t trying to flatter his immediate audience.

In this speech, Obama was justifying his war in Afghanistan to a European audience, but he did it so artfully that to a domestic audience, he sounded like he was indicting the Europeans for their arm-chair theories of peace. Thus the first paragraph of his speech delivered Obama’s dual-pronged opening shot:

“I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations – that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”

If the end goal of our time on earth is justice, then even peace must give way to a just war, which is of course the theme of Obama’s speech. A justfication of war and an ode to justice at the same time. A complex rhetorical two-step well played, if anything because Obama will need the slight bump he’s gotten in the polls if he hopes to complete the final lap of health-care reform(which, unlike foreign policy, requires partisan savvy more than bi-partisan equipoise).

But I would like to think that Obama’s reasons were more than strategic. If Obama’s receipt of the Peace Prize was premature, so are emerging theories about the Obama Doctrine in foreign policy. There is no Obama Doctrine, for saying that he is neither a pure realist nor a pure idealist does not make him self-consciously both. Our search for a presidential doctrine reveals our implicit inversion of the meaning of democracy so that presidents rule and set the formula for policy, while citizens follow. In fact, all President Obama did at Oslo was to represent not only Democrats, which he has done for most of his presidency, but also Republicans, who are also his fellow countrymen even if they did not vote for him. In mirroring the full diversity of opinion of his fellow citizens, he did not articulate an Obama Doctrine but represented an American one. And this is why Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingerich have given the speech their nods of approval.

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