Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Can a Sitting President Accept a Nobel Prize?

Barack Obama was sold to us during the campaign as a brilliant Constitutional scholar. Does the Contitution prevent him from accepting the Nobel Prize? There seems to be some question about this, at least in the minds of people who are willing to entertain the question--unlike Constitutional Scholar Obama, who will fly to Norway with apparent unconcern, dress himself up in white tie and tails, and accept the award with another one of his "It's All About Me" speeches.

J.P. Freire has written two recent opinion pieces on the issue in the Washington Examiner: the first, "Can a Sitting President Receive a Nobel Peace Prize? and the second, "Foreign Meddling Behind Nobel Peace Prize Ignored by Obama."

Freire points out, from Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution: No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

So evidently Obama may accept the award, but Congress will have to vote to allow him to do it. However, that begs the question, shouldn't a sitting president be scrupulous in avoiding even the appearance of impropriety and foreign meddling? Asks Friere, So what is the propriety of a sitting wartime president accepting an award from a foreign committee that is merely an expression of repudiation for the behavior of his predecessor?

As Jonathan Freedland points out in a post on the NYRblog: The peace prize is chosen by politicians representing a country with a population half the size of London. Whatever their Norwegian affiliations, all five would, if transplanted to the US, belong on the liberal end of the political spectrum: the center of gravity in Nordic politics is simply much further to the left than it is in the US. Besides, on foreign policy there is a Norwegian consensus. It favors multilateralism, yearns for nuclear disarmament, and believes in international institutions, revering the United Nations above all.

Freedland remarks on a concern that Norway's Nobel committee may have tied his Obama's hands—making it harder for the President, as a Peace Prize laureate, to take military action against Iran or escalate in Afghanistan. They will hope, at the very least, to bind him into further action on nuclear arms and to keep faith with the UN. Judging from the makeup of the committee, Freedland's concerns seem warranted--or at least the subject of a debate that ought to occur when Congress votes to allow Obama to accept the award. But I'm not holding my breath. I'm just guessing, but if such a vote were to occur, it would be behind closed doors, in the dead of night, unreported by the lame stream media.

Here's a thought: why not avoid the issue of impropriety and foreign meddling altogether? A totally rhetorical question, of course, in the case of Obama, but just play along here for one minute. Better that he had declined the award, and there is some precedent for Obama, as a sitting president, to have done that--or at the very least to put off accepting it until he's out of office. Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his work in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (something he actually accomplished, not something he hoped to accomplish). However, TR did not pick up the prize money (or the prize itself) until 1910, when he visited Europe after his African Safari. He did not feel right accepting the prize while he was in office. Freire suggests in the article that to avoid the appearance of foreign meddling in U.S. affairs, Obama could have given the award the Giuliani treatment: Thanks, but no thanks.

Update: 16 Oct 2009. I haven't heard anything about this in the press except for this article in the Washington Post: "An Unconstitutional Nobel," by Ronald D. Rotunda and J. Peter Pham. I still think the Congress will vote on this in the middle of the night sometime when they think no one is looking.

Ronald D. Rotunda is distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University Law School.
J. Peter Pham is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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