When Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today, he found himself in a situation that tested even his capacity to win friends and influence people. His task was to explain to the committee that war leads to peace, which he more or less did successfully. Obama melded defense of the realm with "humanitarian grounds" to make the case for upping the fight in Afghanistan. The conservative detractors of the Nobel committee's decision to award the peace prize to a president who acknowledged that his achievements are "slight" should at least relish the sight of a liberal president lecturing upon the traditions of just-war theory to a bunch of Euro weenies. George W. Bush would have been run out of town for making the same case.
Consistent with his penchant for stating problems openly so as to diminish expectations, Obama observed that he didn't "bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war." He stated: "What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace."
But Obama's modesty couldn't disguise the fact that back at home his expansion of the Afghanistan War is eliciting as much unease as it is abroad. His approval rating is at a low ebb-50 percent. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, a slim majority now backs Obama's war. But it isn't Democrats, poll numbers indicate, who are supporting the president. It's Republicans. So has Obama already exhausted much of his political capital less than a year into his presidency?
Not so fast. It's certainly possible that things could go bellyup for Obama. If he raises taxes to confiscatory levels and the economy does not recover, he'll be finished. If Congress reimposes the previous draconian levels of the estate tax, it will be one sign of where the Democrats are headed. At the same time, the Democrats, not the Republicans, could revert to cutting and running when it comes to Afghanistan. If the Afghan venture goes awry-and, to a shocking degree, it already has, then the Democrats will abandon Obama on foreign policy within the next year, forcing him to rely almost exclusively on Republicans for support. But that's a big if. The more likely scenario is that Obama will be able to wriggle through on Afghanistan, claiming victory even if he only creates the appearance of stability.
At the same time, passage of a healthcare bill is almost assured. If Obama can sign one shortly before or after Christmas, he will experience a bump in the polls. Forget the details of the bill. The media loves a big story and it will be all about the vindication of the president. Another month of lower job losses will also make a big difference in public perceptions of Obama's performance. In truth, he could be poised for a comeback.
Which is why Republicans need to tread warily. They're trying to project a feeling of optimism and confidence for the 2010 midterm elections. But big gains for the GOP are not a sure thing. The party faces two obstacles.
The first is that it may succumb to its own fissiparous tendencies. As the Washington Post observes today, conservatives are feeling rambunctious and are embarking upon their own surge: "tea party activists and affiliated groups are unveiling new political action committees and tactics aimed at capitalizing on conservative opposition to health-care reform, financial bailouts and other Obama administration policies." The main proving grounds are Florida, where Marco Rubio is running against Charlie Crist to win the party's Senate nod, and California, where Chuck DeVore is challenging Carly Fiorina for the GOP Senate nomination. Still, the efflorescence of such organizations does suggest that the GOP is in for change and a soul-searching that its elite may find somewhat unnerving.
The second, and related, obstacle is that the party really lacks a national leader who can effectively challenge Obama. John Boehner is not it. Nor is RNC head Michael Steele. Perhaps such a leader will emerge. But for now it is by default Sarah Palin. No one else commands the media buzz that she does. The press continues to flock to her, as the Washington Post's receptivity to printing her meditations yesterday on global warming indicate. As a galvanizing figure, Palin may well have become even more indispensable for the Left than the Right. Perhaps Obama, always the conciliator and intent on reviving bipartisanship, can even invite her to the White House when he returns to show her his shiny new gold Nobel medal, solicit her views on climate change, and offer her a few tips about Copenhagen in case she ever gets a special invite to visit it.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.