WASHINGTON - The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama landed with a shock on darkened, still-asleep Washington. He won! For what?
For one of America's youngest presidents, in office less than nine months - and only for 12 days before the Nobel nomination deadline last February - it was an enormous honor.
The prize seems to be more for Obama's promise than for his performance. The Nobel committee cited as his key accomplishment "a new climate in international politics." The president has become "the world's leading spokesman" for its agenda, the committee said.
He has no standout moment of victory. Not surprising. Like most presidents in their first year, Obama's scorecard so far is largely an "incomplete," if he's being graded.
He banned torture and other extreme interrogation techniques for terrorists. But he also promised to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a source of much distaste for the U.S. around the world, a task with difficulties that have Obama headed to miss his own January 2010 deadline.
He said he would end the Iraq war. But he has been slow to bring the troops home and the real end of the U.S. military presence there won't come until at least 2012, and that's only if both the U.S. and Iraq stick to their current agreement about American troop withdrawals. Meantime, he's running a second war in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan - and is seriously considering ramping that one up.
He has pushed for new efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he's received little cooperation from the two sides.
He said he wants a nuclear-free world. But it's one thing to telegraph the desire, in a speech in Prague in April, and quite another to unite other nations and U.S. lawmakers behind the web of treaties and agreements needed to make that reality.
He has said that battling climate change is a priority. But the U.S. seems likely to head into crucial international negotiations set for Copenhagen in December with Obama-backed legislation still stalled in Congress.
And what about Obama's global prestige? It seemed to take a big hit exactly a week ago when he jetted across the Atlantic to lobby for Chicago to get the 2016 Olympics - and was rejected with a last-place finish.
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.
Jennifer Loven is the AP's chief White House correspondent.