The announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in October 2009 that Barack Obama had won the Peace Prize came as a surprise to just about everyone, including the recipient. The president, barely nine months into his new job, knew that the award was an encouragement of his aspirations, not recognition of his accomplishments. He said as much in accepting the prize at the Oslo ceremony two months later.
Over the ensuing three years, Obama negotiated a new strategic arms treaty with Russia, made progress in stamping out the high command of Al Qaeda, and coped deftly with "black swan" events like the Arab Awakening. But on two challenges of existential importance, he has come up short: strengthening the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and leading an international effort to slow the process of climate change. Obama had given priority to both goals in his 2008 campaign and first inaugural address but was thwarted on both, largely because of partisan opposition in Washington.
Obama had hoped to use momentum generated by the 2010 ratification of the "New Start" arms treaty to persuade the Senate to do something it should have done 11 years earlier: ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, CTBT, a pact that would, if it had entered into force, be the culmination of a 50-year American initiative. Instead, the dynamic on Capitol Hill was the opposite of momentum: Republicans who had reluctantly approved New Start opposed CTBT, largely so as to deny Obama another victory.
On climate change, the House of Representatives passed a bill to reduce carbon emissions in 2009; but the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, never voted on the House bill or a Senate version because they could not break a Republican filibuster. Some GOP stalwarts - notably including Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine - had long acknowledged the threat posed by climate change. But they were outnumbered by colleagues who saw the alarm as a hoax designed to enlarge government's role. That view was reinforced by polls at the time showing a decline in the number of Americans who accepted the overwhelming scientific evidence that the peril was real and growing worse by the year.
Republican hostility to a sitting Democratic president during Obama's first term has been more intense, sustained and unified than anything we've seen in modern times. During Obama's inauguration, senior Republicans met privately to develop a strategy to ensure failure in virtually everything he hoped to do. Shortly before the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, stated outright that his top political priority was to deny President Obama a second term.
This breathtaking rejection of the principle of compromise - call it the audacity of irresponsibility - reflects the extreme polarization of American politics, which in turn reflects the dark underside of what's most uplifting about the Obama phenomenon. The same attributes of the 44th president that have made him a prodigy in the eyes of many Americans - and much of the rest of the world - have also made him a target of unprecedented mistrust and hatred.
Campaigning in 2008, Obama drew appreciative laugher from friendly audiences when he referred to himself as "a skinny black guy with a funny name." His victory was as much a credit to the evolution of the country as it was to him. But there was still a race barrier for him to overcome, and it remained four years later.
Obama is not just an African-American - he's half-African, and he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia to boot. His middle name isn't funny to Americans who associate it with the late unlamented dictator of Iraq. For some, the name screams "not one of us" - a red flag to nativists, birthers and the 17 percent of Americans who believe their president is Muslim.