Perhaps for the Nobel committee, merely altering the tone out of Washington toward the rest of the world is enough. 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 ... ?
Obama aides seemed as surprised at the news as everyone else, not even aware he had been nominated along with a record 204 others. He was awoken a little before 6 a.m. by press secretary Robert Gibbs, about an hour after the vote was announced, and aides scrambled to prepare a statement.
It's not necessarily a slam-dunk win for Obama in the tricky U.S. political arena.
He won last year's election in part because voters had grown so weary with the U.S.'s battered image abroad and were attracted to his promise to make a new start. But Republicans have been criticizing Obama as being too much celebrity and too little action, and may seize on this praise — from Europeans, no less — to try to bring him down a peg.
For Nobel voters, though, the award could partly a slap at Obama's predecessor as about lauding 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.
Obama likely understands that his challenges are too steep to resolve — much less honor — 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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jennifer Loven is the AP's chief White House correspondent.