Special Coverage: Obama's Statement On Nobel

President Obama spoke Friday about the stunning early-morning announcement that he had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The award comes amid falling approval ratings, a tough fight over health care and — ironically — decisions over whether to escalate the Afghanistan war. Hear Obama's statement, with analysis from NPR's Don Gonyea and Rob Gifford, the Pew Center's Andy Kohut and the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

On this morning when President Obama won a Nobel Prize for peace, we are waiting for his response.

MONTAGNE: The president is about to speak this morning in the White House Rose Garden.

INSKEEP: We've already heard much of the world's reaction, of course. Former Nobel winners have congratulated the president, a Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan mocked the award, and many people around the world are simply surprised.

MONTAGNE: And in announcing this Nobel Prize to President Obama, the committee said he had created a new climate in international politics. It cited his extraordinary efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation. And I'm quoting here, Steve: "His diplomacy is founded on the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis on values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

INSKEEP: And, of course, the Nobel Committee chairman also said that he got the prize because he's been able to change the international climate. This is a quote from him: "Some people say, as I understand it, isn't it premature, too early? Well," the chairman says, "I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond, all of us."

So, clearly a sense there that the Nobel Committee, in addition to trying to award anything, they are - reward anything that the president has actually done, wanted to go further and affect world events here with this honor at this time.

MONTAGNE: And, again, we are waiting at this moment for the president to come out into the Rose Garden to speak to the honor of winning the Nobel Prize. It comes at a moment when his approval ratings are down. He's got a tough fight on Capitol Hill over health care.

And it is hard, Steve, to miss the irony that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a moment when he's trying to decide whether to escalate a war -that he inherited - but to escalate that war in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: A reminder of the complexity of the choices facing the president here. Now, we are expecting the president to come out to Rose Garden and deliver his speech. We're actually looking at a televised image.

MONTAGNE: Looking at a picture.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: He seems to be - he's got his finger on his - across his mouth, seeming to contemplate what he's going to say.

INSKEEP: Somebody looking in through a window and looking over, perhaps, what he's written or had written for him today. And, of course, this is somebody who writes or plays a big hand in writing his speeches. We can expect it to be largely his own words, or made into his own words today.

As we wait for the president to step out, let's bring another voice into the conversation. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea has covered President Obama since well before his election, covered the campaign, as well. He's with us. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA: Good morning. Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: Obviously, this is a big deal and a big news story, but is this something that the president, if given a choice, would say he wanted right now, do you think?

GONYEA: It puts him in a very interesting position. It is not clear at all that this award is going to be something that is, you know, the kind of thing that can help his agenda here in the U.S. It's not going to create any jobs. It's not going to strengthen the dollar. It's not going to do any of these things that he is working hard to do.

And I think the White House would recognize - perhaps we'll hear this from the president shortly - that this is certainly unexpected. And I don't know that the White House would acknowledge what some people have been saying, some of the analysts, that it is perhaps premature, given that he does not have hard and fast things to show for the work he's done and the tone he has set.

But, you know, but it's going to be an interesting thing to see how they craft these remarks.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, Don, just a moment ago, the president was caught -he's caught on camera laughing, actually. So he is moving away from his position contemplating his speech, seems to be beginning to head towards that podium in the Rose Garden.

But I would say one thing very quickly: How surprised do you suppose the White House was? I mean, it seems like he got the call in the morning like anybody else.

GONYEA: It was his wakeup call. I mean, what a wakeup call to receive. And what we hear from sources inside the White House is that he was humbled by the news. But they knew he had been nominated. I mean, a lot of people are nominated for this award.

MONTAGNE: Couple of hundred, couple of hundred, little more than that.

GONYEA: Exactly. But I think the fact that he has won the award caught them completely off guard.

INSKEEP: And it is something...

MONTAGNE: Well, you...

INSKEEP: ...go ahead, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Oh, I was just going to say, you know about the Nobels, too. People are often nominated time after time.

GONYEA: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Their names show up on a list. So, one might have thought with him, if you saw his name on a list, well, let's get started on this one. He's got eight more years - maybe four, at least.

INSKEEP: Although you're reminded also of the political complexities of this from one of those statements that Renee read a moment ago, when the Nobel Committee said that its diplomacy is founded and the concept that those who lead have to do so on the basis of values shared by the majority of the world's population. And I feel like that's a slogan - or a statement, a phrase - that will hit different people in this country in different ways, Don Gonyea. Some people will say, yes. He's bringing us more in line with the world and improving America's image. And some people will say he's not supposed to be representing the majority of the world population.

GONYEA: Well, recall, too, when he gave that big speech as a candidate in Berlin last summer, that he essentially said - I'm paraphrasing here - that, you know, I stand here as a citizen of the world. And he was criticized back home for uttering that phrase.

INSKEEP: I want to let you know that we are going to be going to the president's statement momentarily, as soon as he makes it. We've got our eyes on the Rose Garden of the White House here, which is where the president will speak. And as we do that - Renee, go ahead.

MONTAGNE: I was going to say, he's not getting any prizes for promptness there.

INSKEEP: Well, that's fine, that's fine.

MONTAGNE: Fair enough.

INSKEEP: There's plenty to talk about while we wait. And, in fact, let's bring another voice into the conversation, here. Andrew Kohut is a familiar voice. For many of our listeners, he's somebody who is involved with the Pew polls that have looked at opinion in the United States and around the world in recent years.

And I suppose one thing to ask, Mr. Kohut - and good morning, by the way...

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: ...is whether this is just plainly a reflection of a different world opinion of a different American president.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, he has - according to polls that we've done - rock star popularity all around the world, save the Muslim world, perhaps - not perhaps, certainly. And much of it has to do with hope and aspirations. People don't -their views of him are not predicated on notions of what he's done, but the view that he's going to change American policies in the process of changing American policy.

So that's very much fitting with the spirit of the award. Back home, I think for the people who are his backers, they need something to cheer about, and this will give them something to cheer about - and perhaps even for some of those swing voters, that would remind them who've become more critical of him lately, that he has done a lot for the United States around the world.

However, among his critics, this will be an expression of Obama's certainly overrated, isn't he?

MONTAGNE: Well, Andy, this sort of brings up something that's already come up this morning, perhaps something of a burden to the president. I mean, more pressure to live up to the award, deliver on some of his foreign policy goals, even for those who support him.

Mr. KOHUT: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, think about it internationally, what we found was he had this great popularity and there was great aspirations for him at a time when people were telling us, no, we don't approve of his request for more troops in Afghanistan. So far, people are willing to put away, tuck away in one corner of their mind that many things - some of the things that he may do and is doing that they're not going to like. They're grooving on the hope and feeling good about Obama.

INSKEEP: Can I follow up on one thing that you said in passing there, Mr. Kohut? Because you noted that he is less popular in the Middle East, perhaps, than elsewhere. This is a president who went and famously addressed the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo over the summer. And if I'm not mistaken, that was one of the efforts that was cited by the Nobel Committee. I suppose it's worth remembering or noting the numbers if, in fact, he's less popular in the Muslim world than elsewhere.

Mr. KOHUT: He's certainly much less popular, as is the United States. In our polling, which was done before and after that speech in Cairo, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, showed it was not transformative in the Arab world. It's going to take a lot to change American public opinion about the United States in that part of the world. One speech will not do it.

It was a good start. There were some good signs in our polling about it, but it didn't move the needle.

INSKEEP: And we'll just mention that we are still waiting for President Obama to speak at the Rose Garden outside the White House this morning.

MONTAGNE: And we're talking, of course, to Andy Kohut and also our own Don Gonyea. But also, we have NPR's Rob Gifford in London standing by to talk about world reaction. And, Rob, you've described the world's surprise at hearing this. What about now that it's afternoon in Europe and maybe a little of the shock, or at least the surprise, has worn off?

ROB GIFFORD: Yes. Well, Renee, as you say, there was equal surprise here. There were audible gasps in the auditorium when it was announced in Oslo this morning. In the hours that have followed, that we've seen a lot of responses, a lot of very positive responses from European leaders, Nicolas Sarkozy saying this has restored the place of America in the hearts of the people of the world - Angela Merkel of Germany also welcoming it, and a lot of former Nobel laureates, like Desmond Tutu, President Mandela, former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA - all welcoming this.

It hasn't been universally positive. The Taliban, as you might expect, issued a statement in Afghanistan saying President Obama had done nothing for peace. But I think that the recognition is, yes, this is a sign of the Nobel Committee voting for President Obama, for hopefulness in what he can do and how he has changed the tone of the debate of America's engagement with the world.

INSKEEP: Although it is remarkable when you mention some of those other Nobel winners, Rob Gifford, to note the contrast, and I'm sure that some people will.

If you think of Nelson Mandela, here's a man who went to prison, who spent decades in prison for a cause and came out and oversaw the peaceful transition of South Africa. Morgan Tsvangirai is somebody who was mentioned as a possibility for the Nobel this time. You think about Mikhail Gorbachev and his huge role in ending the Cold War, who also issued congratulations to the president today.

Is it fair to say that some people where you are might ask if President Obama belongs in that category yet?

GIFFORD: I think people are asking the same questions here, as they did - as they are in the United States. But I think it's fair to say that people are overwhelmingly positive towards President Obama here in Europe. That's no secret. The Bush administration was not popular here.

And, of course, this can be seen as an implicit or rather explicit, we could say, slap in the face to the Bush administration by the Nobel Committee. Because really, this is saying we like America now. We like what the president is doing. We didn't like it before under Bush.

One voice that has come out - a former Nobel laureate himself, actually - Lech Walesa, the former Polish president who won in 1983, he has actually been somewhat dubious. He's been a bit hesitant. He said, so soon? It's too early. He has made no contributions so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: So, it's not...

MONTAGNE: That's a little shrewish.

GIFFORD: ...universal. It's not universal, and there are some voices saying, come on, you know, that seems crazy and way too premature. And, of course, it raises the bar so much. It makes it, in some ways, makes it quite difficult, perhaps. That's what some other voices are saying here. It makes it difficult for President Obama to do anything, to live up to this award. I mean, how does he follow that after this has been given to him? It's a sort of poisoned challis, if you like, that's been handed to him.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, though, Rob, if there is some maybe thinking there in Europe that this award, a peace prize, might somehow sway American policy. And if it doesn't, in the sense that, you know, Barack Obama proceeds to, you know, either bring more troops into Afghanistan or at least maintain what's there, if there'll be some disappointment.

GIFFORD: Yes, I think that could be true. I mean, I think a lot of Europeans -of course, the people engaged in foreign policy here - are under no illusions about the difficulties domestically for President Obama. And, of course, I think people realize the problems that we were just hearing about from Don Gonyea that this could give to the president domestically.

Maybe it'll confirm in some people's view in the United States that he is the kind of liberal, wussy European-kind of internationalist that they accuse him of being. So I think no one is under any illusions here. But I think a lot of people just say, you know what? Yes, this is a vote. This is a kind of stamp of approval on even just the first nine months of President Obama.

He's doing things the way we would like to see him doing them. And he is forcing and making America engage with the world in a way that we the outside world want to see America engage with us. Because there's no doubt that that is more popular and people - it's not as anti-American out here as many people in the U.S. think it is. A lot of people love America. They want America to be engaged, and they see President Obama as reflecting the type of America they want to see.

INSKEEP: We are live this morning from Washington and Los Angeles, waiting on President Obama to make a statement this morning. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center in Washington is in our studios. NPR's Don Gonyea is here. We'll continue to hear more views as we wait for the president, as well as after, and we will carry his remarks live.

And as we wait, I want to very briefly bring in another voice to join the conversation. His name is Matthew Continetti, Matt Continetti. He's a columnist for the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication in Washington, D.C. Good morning, sir.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Columnist, Weekly Standard): Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, what did you think when you heard this news?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I have to say my first reaction was laughter, and I think that it's the same with a lot of Americans. Just kind of shocked at this prize being rewarded on the basis of nine months of little substantive achievements in the international policy arena.

INSKEEP: Although, of course, as we've heard this morning, some people think that he's changed the tone and that that is, in itself, significant.

Mr. CONTINETTI: And it clearly is for the Nobel Prize Committee. And, you know, reading it and talking - reading their citation and hearing about how it's really a symbolic gesture, the symbolic changes that the president has made is why they gave him the prize, I thought, well, why not give it to the American people? We, after all, are the ones who elected President Obama. It's the American populous who decided to embrace his policies and his changed tone.

Sure, he's gone and implemented that desire, but he doesn't have much to show for it, from my perspective.

INSKEEP: Mr. Continetti, stay with us, if you don't mind, if you can listen to the president's speech with us, which we're told is just a moment or two away now and we'll come back and get some reaction. And you can join the conversation afterward, as well.

We are watching this lectern that has been set up at the White House Rose Garden, and we've been told that the president should be there shortly. Mr. Continetti spoke about the Nobel Committee citation. They spoke about the president leading to, creating, contributing to, quote, "a new climate in international politics." They spoke of his extraordinary efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation. They mentioned specific efforts, like his speech reaching out to the Middle East earlier this summer - reaching out the Muslim world, I should say.

And they spoke in terms of a president who attempted to reach out to the rest of the world, Don Gonyea, and attempted to change Americans' relationship to the world, America's relationship to the world and will work more cooperatively with it, to respond to what the majority of the world wants, as one of the phrases said.

GONYEA: It does speak to the sense that they feel that the U.S. has elected a president who is in synch with the kinds of things, the kind of approach to diplomacy that the committee sees.

MONTAGNE: And, Don, as we can all see, the president has just begun to speak.

President BARACK OBAMA: ... and said, Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is Bo's birthday. And then Sasha added, plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up. So it's, it's good to have kids to keep things in perspective. I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel committee. Let me be clear, I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations. To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize, men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build, a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement, it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.

These challenges can't be met by any one leader or any one nation. And that's why my administration's worked to establish a new era of engagement, in which all nations must take responsibility for the world we seek. We cannot tolerate a world in which nuclear weapons spread to more nations and in which the terror of a nuclear holocaust endangers more people, and that's why we've begun to take concrete steps to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. Because all nations have the right to pursue peaceful nuclear power, but all nations have the responsibility to demonstrate their peaceful intentions.

We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children. So in conflict, in famine, destroying coastlines and emptying cities. And that's why all nations must now accept their share of responsibility for transforming the way that we use energy. We can't allow the differences between peoples to define the way that we see one another, and that's why we must pursue a new beginning among people of different faiths and races and religions, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect. And we must all do our part to resolve those conflicts that have caused so much pain and hardship over so many years. And that effort must include an unwavering commitment to finally realize that the rights of all Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security in nations of their own.

We can't accept a world in which more people are denied opportunity and dignity that all people yearn for, the ability to get an education and make a decent living, the security that you won't have to live in fear of disease or violence without hope for the future. And even as we strive to seek a world in which conflicts are resolved peacefully and prosperity is widely shared, we have to confront the world as we know it today. I am the commander-in-chief of a country that's responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies.

I'm also aware that we are dealing with the impact of a global economic crisis that has left millions of Americans looking for work. These are concerns that I confront every day on behalf of the American people. Some of the work confronting us will not be completed during my presidency. Some, like the elimination of nuclear weapons, may not be completed in my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met, so long as it's recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone. This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration, it's about the courageous efforts of people around the world.

And that's why this award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity. For the young woman who marches silently in the streets on behalf of her right to be heard, even in the face of beatings and bullets, for the leader imprisoned in her own home because she refuses to abandon her commitment to democracy, for the soldier who sacrificed through tour after tour of duty on behalf of someone half a world away, and for all those men and women across the world who sacrifice their safety and their freedom and sometime their lives for the cause of peace. That has always been the cause of America. That's why the world has always looked to America, and that's why I believe America will continue to lead. Thank you very much.

Unidentified Man: What did your wife say, Mr. President? What would you do with the money, Mr. President?

INSKEEP: President Obama speaking briefly today. Sounds like he'll be taking no questions, although a few questions thrown at him at the end there, saying that his daughters reminded him this morning that he won a Nobel Peace Prize and also that he had a three-day weekend coming up. Saying that he did not feel he deserved this prize, but he nevertheless accepts it, saying I have - I also know that this prize speaks to the world that we want to build. That's the president this morning.

And we're going to discuss this for a couple of minutes with our panel here in the studios and elsewhere this morning. And maybe let's go first to Don Gonyea, our White House correspondent who's listened to this man the most. What did you think?

GONYEA: He clearly was trying to demonstrate humility. He said he doesn't deserve the award for his accomplishments, something that many have been saying. But he said he recognizes that the award strives for a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents.

That echoed something he said in Berlin as a candidate just over a year ago, where he talked about how we are constantly striving to be a more perfect union.

INSKEEP: Also, though, you mentioned that there were some challenges to this for the president right now, and he seemed to acknowledge them when he acknowledged that there are Americans who are looking for work and that's their priority right now, realizing that not everybody's head is on the Nobel Prize today.

GONYEA: He's talked about the work that he needs to do, certainly the work globally in seeking a more peaceful world. But he also talked about the economic security, the jobs that people have rights to and are looking for here.

INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut, what did you think, of the Pew Research Center?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think that he put his finger on something that's apparent in global opinions about him, and that is this isn't - it's not based on his accomplishment, but world aspirations. And you can't - world aspirations for him and for this country are just undeniable when you look at our survey and all of the surveys that have been taken internationally since he's taken office.

MONTAGNE: And, you know, he also spoke just a moment ago about confronting the world as we know it today, which has maybe a sense of being very practical about what the dangers are out there and what the limits are. So, I'm curious, Matt Continetti, editor at the Weekly Standard, what do you think about that?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I think it's a key point, Renee. I mean, the symbology, right, is great. Obama has changed the tone. No one would deny that. But the realities are very different. There are two wars ongoing in two different countries, and North Korea continues to have nuclear weapons. Iran continues, we think, to move toward having weapons of their own.

The reality is very different than the aspirations. And for me, one thing or the other is going to happen: either the international community, so called, is going to wake up to the fact that even though the tone has changed, the reality has not. Or the American people are going to start wondering, well, is there any there, there?

We have the president touring the world, accepting these prizes, but really, what is happening in terms of America's overall position in the world? Is he strengthening it, or is he weakening it?

MONTAGNE: Although do you think that this might strengthen his position if, in fact, it is, in a sense, it's the world conferring this imprimatur on him?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Sure. It strengthens his personal position, though it's hard to say how it could even be strengthened more. He is such a global celebrity. Whether it does translate into actual, real-world progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on nuclear disarmament in Iran and North Korea, on, you know, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, I think that remains to be seen, and I have to say I'm a little skeptical.

INSKEEP: Don Gonyea, I want to ask about one line in the president's speech. He's accepting the Nobel Peace Prize here, of course, and he acknowledges that one of the things he wants to do, that he is doing, he says, is taking concrete steps to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. And yet then he goes on to make this formulation where he says countries have the right to peaceful nuclear power, but they have to demonstrate their peaceful purposes.

And as he said that, I could not help but think: Is that a quiet message to Iran? Hey, I may be the man of peace today, but I'm still willing to get tough with you guys if I have to?

GONYEA: I think it was a very direct message to Iran. Additionally, he said he accepts this award on behalf of all of those around the world who are constantly standing up in the face of authority - a woman, he said, who marches in the streets in the face of bullets. To me, he was talking about the famous video of the woman...

INSKEEP: Oh, Neda in Iran.

GONYEA: ...of Neda in Iran, exactly.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, there you go. So, perhaps mixed messages here. Andrew Kohut, any thoughts about that?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I thought what was interesting is he not only mentioned the goals that everyone around the world agrees with or most people around the world agree with - stopping nuclear proliferation, controlling climate change -but he also went into dealing - confronting a ruthless adversary. Obviously, he's talking about Afghanistan.

So, he's not only - he wasn't only talking about goals that - where there's consensus, but he's talking about the one issue that is most divisive, not only around the world, but increasingly here in the United States, and that's Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: And Rob Gifford - our own Rob Gifford is with us from London. And Rob, I just want to give you a chance before our time is up, which it will be very shortly, to weigh in on what you just heard the president say.

GIFFORD: Well, I think the phrase that struck me, Renee, was just - I think he used the phrase his affirmation of U.S. leadership near the beginning of those remarks. And I think, in many ways, that's how it looks from here. We all know it's not a vote for his achievements, but it really is an affirmation of - it's the Nobel Committee, and with them many people in the world saying, yes, we want you, in some ways, to lead. We want you to lead on all these issues that you are leading on. That's the America we want to see engaged. And this is our vote of confidence in you. We want to come with you on that in the Middle East, on Iran, and we're glad that you're here to lead us into the future in that way.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford is in London. We were also joined this morning by Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and our own White House correspondent, Don Gonyea.

And, of course, we heard President Obama saying he will accept a Nobel Peace Prize, though he feels he did not deserve it. He says in the past, this prize has been given to give momentum to causes, and he plainly suggested that he felt this was a chance to give momentum to causes - his own, as well.

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