For Nobel voters, the award could be as much about issuing a slap at Mr. Obama’s predecessor as about lauding Mr. Obama. The Nobel committee, it seems, had the audacity to hope that he’ll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama landed with a shock on darkened, still-asleep Washington. He won! For what?

For one of America’s youngest Presidents, in office less than nine months, and only for 12 days before the Nobel nomination deadline of last February, it was an enormous honour.

The prize seems to be more for Mr. Obama’s promise than for his performance. Work on the President’s ambitious agenda, both at home and abroad, is barely underway, much less finished. He has no standout moment of victory that would seem to warrant a verdict as sweeping as that issued by the Nobel committee.

Like most Presidents in their first year, Mr. Obama’s scorecard so far is largely an “incomplete,” if he’s being graded.

He banned torture and other extreme interrogation techniques for terrorists. But he also promised to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a source of much distaste for the U.S. around the world, a task with difficulties that have Mr. Obama headed to miss his own January 2010 deadline.

He said he would end the Iraq war. But he has been slow to bring the troops home and the real end of the U.S. military presence there won’t come until at least 2012, and that’s only if both the U.S. and Iraq stick to their current agreement about American troop withdrawals. Meantime, he’s running a second war in Afghanistan, and is seriously considering ramping that one up.

He has pushed for new efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he’s received little cooperation from the two sides.

He said he wants a nuclear-free world. But it’s one thing to telegraph the desire, in a speech in Prague in April, and quite another to unite other nations and U.S. lawmakers behind the web of treaties and agreements needed to make that reality.

He has said that battling climate change is a priority. But the U.S. seems likely to head into crucial international negotiations set for Copenhagen in December with Obama—backed legislation still stalled in Congress.

And what about Mr. Obama’s global prestige? It seemed to take a big hit exactly a week ago when he jetted across the Atlantic to lobby for Chicago to get the 2016 Olympics, and was rejected with a last-place finish.

Perhaps for the Nobel committee, merely altering the tone out of Washington toward the rest of the world is enough. Mr. Obama got much attention for his speech from Cairo reaching out a U.S. hand to the world’s Muslims. His remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last month set down new markers for the way the U.S. works with the world.

But still ... ?

Mr. Obama aides seemed as surprised at the news as everyone else, not even aware he had been nominated along with a record 204 others. Awoken by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about an hour after the vote was announced, the White House says the President responded that he was humbled to be only the third sitting U.S. President to be able to put the prestigious Nobel laureate title before his name.

It’s not necessarily a slam-dunk win for Mr. Obama in the tricky U.S. political arena.

It’s good news after a string of difficulties. And he won last year’s election in no small part because voters had grown so weary with the U.S.’s battered image overseas and were attracted to his promise to make a new start for America. But Republicans have never been shy about criticizing Democrat Obama as being too much celebrity and too little action, and may seize on this praise to try to bring him down a peg in the eyes of U.S. voters.

For Nobel voters, though, the award could be as much about issuing a slap at Mr. Obama’s predecessor as about lauding Mr. Obama. Former President George W. Bush was reviled by much of the world for his cowboy diplomacy, Iraq war and snubbing of European priorities like global warming. Remember that the Nobel Prize has a long history of being awarded more for the committee’s aspirations than for others’ accomplishments, for Mideast peace or a better South Africa, for instance.

In those cases, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments.

Mr.Obama likely understands that his challenges are too steep to resolve, much less honour, after just a few months. “It’s not going to be easy,” the President often says of the tasks he sets for the United States and the world.

The Nobel committee, it seems, had the audacity to hope that he’ll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.

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