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President Obama Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Mixed Reviews

October 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama was named this year's Nobel Peace Prize honoree, becoming the second sitting president to win. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama was named the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize today in Oslo, Norway. The unexpected choice made him the third U.S. president to be so honored while still in office.

Ray Suarez begins our lead story coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: The announcement in Norwegian drew gasps of surprise as the audience realized who had won.

THORBJORN JAGLAND, Chairman, Norwegian Nobel Committee: … Barack Obama…

THORBJORN JAGLAND: … extraordinary…

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

RAY SUAREZ: White House officials said the president did not know he had been nominated until the announcement. Hours later, he appeared in the Rose Garden.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

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.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Obama had been president only two weeks before the deadline for Peace Prize nominations. And there was no word on who submitted his name. But the Nobel Committee cited a string of initiatives the president has launched in speeches around the world, in Prague last April…

Initiatives inspired award

BARACK OBAMA: I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: ... in Cairo last June, when he reached out to the Muslim world...

BARACK OBAMA: There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.

RAY SUAREZ: And last month at the United Nations, where he sought to restart the stalled Middle East peace talks. Ultimately, the committee's citation even carried echoes from last year, when then-candidate Obama spoke in Berlin, Germany.

BARACK OBAMA: That is why we cannot afford to be divided. No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.

RAY SUAREZ: With today's honor, President Obama joins Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as the only sitting presidents to win the Peace Prize. Former President Jimmy Carter won in 2002, decades after he left the Oval Office.

Former Vice President Al Gore was the 2007 Nobel Peace laureate for his work on global climate change. He had words of praise today in Madison, Wisconsin.

AL GORE, former vice president, United States: I think it's thrilling that President Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

AL GORE: It's an honor for our country.

AL GORE: It's an honor of -- for him, first and foremost, of course, but it's an honor for our country. I think it's extremely well-deserved.

Mixed reactions in U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: By contrast, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele criticized the choice, in a statement, he said, "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."

Across the country, the news evoked an array of reactions from average Americans.

MAN: This is a signal to the United States by the rest of the world that, indeed, we did something very right in the election of Barack Obama.

WOMAN: I was a little shocked because I thought the timing was sort of interesting, in that he hasn't been in office for very long; he hasn't achieved very much. You know, I think what he has done has been very promising.

MAN: As much as I like Barack Obama, I just don't know that he has done enough to warrant such an honor.

MAN: And the winner is a shock Nobel Peace Prize.

RAY SUAREZ: Around the world, the announcement headlined evening newscasts. And reactions on the street varied, from the Obama family's ancestral homeland in Kenya to the streets of Moscow.

MAN: We are very proud of him, because he has won the prize, and not only the prize, but the Nobel Peace Prize, within a very short period of time. That simply implies that he is already on the course to bring the change he promised.

MAN: I don't think he deserved it. What did he do? Did he invent something? Is he a scientist? Why? He was just elected. What peace efforts? He hasn't done anything at all towards peace yet.

World leaders react

RAY SUAREZ: Among world leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many, especially in Europe.

ANGELA MERKEL, chancellor, Germany: He was able, in a short amount of time, to set a new tone and readiness to worldwide talks. I think we all should support him in making peace possible worldwide.

RAY SUAREZ: But some leaders disagreed, including Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza.

ISMAIL HANIYEH, Hamas leader, Gaza: If there is no fundamental and true change in American policies toward the acknowledgment of the rights of the Palestinian people, I think this prize won't move us forward or backward.

RAY SUAREZ: And, in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai welcomed the announcement, but a Taliban spokesman condemned it, saying Mr. Obama had only escalated the war there.

The president plans to accept the award December 10 in Norway. He said today he will donate the entire $1.4 million prize to charity.

JIM LEHRER: We will have more on the Nobel Peace Prize later in the program tonight.