While in recent decades the selection process has produced many winners better known for their suffering or their environmental zeal than for peacemaking, the panel's new chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, said the members this year took a more practical approach in their unanimous vote for Obama.
"It's important for the committee to recognize people who are struggling and idealistic," Jagland said in an interview after the prize was announced, "but we cannot do that every year. We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world."
The committee is overtly political, as the Swedish dynamite tycoon Alfred Nobel must have intended when, in his will, he instructed the Norwegian Parliament to appoint the selection committee. Because it is chosen to reflect roughly the balance of party strength in Norway, the current committee has members across the spectrum, from the Socialist Left Party to the far-right Progress Party.
Jagland, 58, a former Labor Party prime minister, was elected September 29 to be secretary general of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation organization that, operating in parallel to the European Union, seeks to further democracy and the rule of law.
Geir Lundestad, who as executive director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute has handled the committee's administrative affairs since 1990, said the panel met six or seven times this year, starting several weeks after the nomination deadline, February 1.
Any member of a national legislature, any professor of the social sciences and several other categories of people are free to submit nominations, and someone usually puts forward the name of the American president. That was true this year, even though Obama had been in office less than two weeks at the deadline.
This year the panel did not settle on a winner until October 5, Lundestad said. He added that Oslo now faced a major challenge: to get ready for the award ceremony for Obama, just two months away. It will probably be among the largest civic events in Norwegian history.
The committee took a chance in choosing Obama, who not only is in his first year as President, but also is directing two wars. Should his presidency descend into a military quagmire, as Lyndon B. Johnson's did during the Vietnam War, the decision could prove an embarrassment.
Some in Oslo said the Nobel committee had put the integrity of the award at stake. But Jagland seemed to savor the risk. He said no one could deny that "the international climate" had suddenly improved, and that Obama was the main reason.
Of Obama's future, he said: "There is great potential. But it depends on how the other political leaders respond. If they respond negatively, one might have to say he failed. But at least we want to embrace the message that he stands for."
He likened this year's award to the one in 1971, which recognized Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, and his "Ostpolitik" policy of reconciliation with Communist Eastern Europe.
"Brandt hadn't achieved much when he got the prize, but a process had started that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall," Jagland said. "The same thing is true of the prize to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, for launching perestroika. One can say that Barack Obama is trying to change the world, just as those two personalities changed Europe."
Jagland, asked if the committee feared being labeled naive for accepting a young politician's promises at face value, shrugged and said, "Well, so?"