Yesterday, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Five years ago, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." The choice was universally mocked by Republicans and uncomfortably accepted by Democrats both sides realizing that the prize was, at the very least, prematurely awarded. During his acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged this, and more specifically that his role as commander in chief of the United State's military made him unable to emulate the pacifism and idealism of former winners.
"I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," Obama said.
However while President Obama made clear that the practical realities of the office of the presidency would guide his actions, he also maintained that as a Nobel Laureate he would continue to strive for progress and, ultimately through it, the promotion of peace.
"The fundamental faith in human progress - that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey," Obama said.
Five years later, how much progress has President Obama made?
On the face of it, not much:
Abroad, the United States is still fighting the war in Afghanistan, with President Obama's 2014 withdrawal date seeming more and more unlikely (the Pentagon has requested that 6,000-20,000 American troops remain in the country indefinitely). Meanwhile, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open, and the administration seems to have become uncomfortably casual regarding the use of drones.
Here at home, we continue to suffer the largest murder rate with guns in the developing world (over 30,000 deaths a year compared to under 150 in the U.K.). Congress was unable to pass meaningful legislation despite mass shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, and most recently, Washington D.C. Additionally, the Obama administration has largely forgotten the issue global climate change since the failure of "Cap and Trade" legislation in 2009.
Then there's the Affordable Care Act, which is finally taking effect after three years of legislative battles.
Although "Obamacare" is controversial, imperfect, and its implementation is sure to be bumpy (as we've seen already from website glitches), it will provide millions of previously uninsured Americans health care coverage, lower the price of prescription drugs, and greatly reduce long term health care costs, which will (listen up Republicans) reduce the national debt. All of that is, as Joe Biden so beautifully put it is "a big fucking deal."
So, in many respects the Affordable Care Act has validated President Obama's statement to the Nobel Committee on December 10, 2009 in Oslo: not to be King, Ghandi, or Mandela, but to keep the United States moving forward towards the "North Star" of progress. And that's a lot more I can say for most politicians in Washington right now.
Remember, the irony of the life of Alfred Nobel, for whom the Nobel Prize is named, is that Nobel, the creator of dynamite, decided at the end of his life that he wanted to leave a more positive legacy. So he dedicated his immense personal fortune to the formation of annual prizes, celebrating people who built things up, rather than tore them down.
Today, as we are in the middle of a government shutdown and a looming debt ceiling debate, our leaders should learn from the life of Alfred Nobel and remember that one's legacy is defined by what they leave behind, not what they destroy.