Historians may look back on this month as the time when the high-flying expectations that many have placed on President Barack Obama hit the ground domestically while at the same time soaring into the stratosphere overseas.
Obama's own supporters have become increasingly impatient with what they see as a lack of progress on his agenda, and more conservative critics continue their harsh attacks on his proposals and his appointments. Even late-night comics are taking the gloves off. Yet the Nobel Prize committee chose this time to award him the Nobel Peace Prize, putting him in the same company as Mother Teresa and former President Jimmy Carter. The committee said it honored Obama for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
The president, who has only been in office nine months, had the good sense to observe that the prize was more a call to action than an award for accomplishments.
It is undeniable that our neighbors overseas are pleased by the rhetoric and the gestures of this new president. Pope Benedict XVI himself seemed sympathetic to this foreign-born enthusiasm, telling the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See that in recent months the United States "has recaptured the imagination of the world."
There is, worldwide, a longing for peace, a longing for stability, a longing for a course other than conflict. It is not at all surprising that many people, both in this country and abroad, have invested enormous expectations in Obama. His personal story is one that encapsulates the American promise for many, and his rhetoric is powerfully evocative as well. Looking about the world stage, there is virtually no other leader who is capable of capturing a crisis-weary world's imagination.
It is worth noting that what people long for is not just a political agenda, but a vision. They long for honesty, not corruption. They long for peace, not conflict. They long for engagement, not the isolationist mindset that does not see partnership as worthwhile. They long for these things, too often unsuccessfully, in their own leaders, and they long for them in America's leader.
But what the world needs now is more than sentiments and high-sounding rhetoric. It needs principles. It needs deeds guided by these principles: Defending the weak. Protecting civil and human rights. Caring for the poor. Respecting freedom. Demanding accountability.
The world will often long for the great leader, the master rhetorician, who can inspire and mobilize. Such political gifts can be used for good or for ill, as the past century has revealed. Most important is that leaders hold themselves accountable to greater principles of human rights and human dignity.
And while the Nobel Prize committee has made it more than clear that they will never award the Peace Prize to a pope, it has been the pontiffs of the last 100 years who have sought to keep the world's focus on the principles of justice, true human freedom and charity.
From the unborn to the elderly, from religious minorities to the rights of all to express faith in God, from the demanding strictures of the just war doctrine to the needs of the world's impoverished billions, the Church has sought to articulate principles that should govern all nations and all leaders.
For all the world's leaders, including the leaders of our own country, the true prize is holding true to these principles in the face of all the challenges now to be faced.
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