Could Obama Have Been the American Mandela (and What Went Wrong)?
Barack Obama had to be searching his bruised soul in Johannesburg last week at the memorial service for the late, great Nelson Mandela. Nestled between First Lady Michelle and eyecatching Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the embattled U.S. president must have watched the deification of the South African liberator with a twinge of bittersweet regret.
I wish they’d eulogize ME like that, I can imagine him thinking. While I’m still alive, preferably. Damn, even the WHITE South Africans love Mandela. I mean, come on… I can’t believe Americans are more racist than the Afrikaners. What more do I have to do to prove that I’m not a socialist Muslim black supremacist who was born in Kenya? I’m smart. Well educated. Not bad looking for a middle-aged guy. Keep in shape, shoot hoops, good family man, got Osama bin Laden, helped avert a catastrophic worldwide financial collapse, didn’t try to nationalize the health insurance companies. What do they want from me?
You couldn’t blame Obama if he ruefully compared and contrasted his own career with that of the beloved elder statesman. After all, Mandela had been his idol, his inspiration for launching an ambitious career in American politics. The young community organizer in Chicago envisioned a noble trajectory for himself, and his fellow Democrats reciprocated by grooming him for the presidency before he had even scored a seat in the Senate.
Obama inspired enough voters to win the ultimate prize. From the outset, he promised to be one of those transformational presidents who come along perhaps once every half century. He was ready to become the American Mandela, a conciliatory leader who would soothe our lingering racial resentments and smooth the path to a long-overdue postracial society. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting himself elected to the highest office in a country with a long history of racial discord. (Mandela had to work a little harder for his prize.)
In fact, the parallels between Obama and Mandela were striking.
Both men were tall, slender, dignified and black, but with hints of racial ambiguity. (Obama’s mother was white; Mandela displayed the tawny-brown skin and “Asiatic” eyes of the original Cape tribes.) Both men stood ramrod-straight but carried themselves with ease and grace. Both could command affection as well as respect, a too-rare trait among political leaders. Their personal charm, beguiling humor and engaging smiles only added to the aura of magnetism that made them glow as if lit from within.
Mandela came from an elite family; Obama attended elite universities. Mandela lost his father when he was a boy; Obama was abandoned by his. Both were equally comfortable in the company of whites and blacks. If either of them harbored any residual bitterness toward whites, they managed to conceal and even transcend it. And finally, with minimal experience in political office and against overwhelming historical odds, both men became the first black president of their respective republics.
Do the similarities end here? Not really. Both Mandela and Obama started out as doctrinaire leftists and wisely moved toward the center as they matured. Neither man promoted policies that would discriminate against whites. And, for better or worse, neither was a hands-on policy wonk in the tradition of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. After the hard work of winning public confidence and ascending to the presidency, both men largely delegated the nuts and bolts of governing to their trusted advisors. They were all about vision and symbolism.
It worked out beautifully for Mandela: here he was, lionized by legions of adoring whites and blacks in death as in life, revered as one of the great men of the twentieth century, even of all time. Obama? Not so much. His approval rating had recently dropped south of 40 percent, and his popularity was waning even among his formerly ardent supporters.
I still can’t believe how my presidency has imploded, I can imagine Obama musing as he listened to the endless tributes that day in Johannesburg. The Republicans were out to stop me from Day One. Damn birthers, they just couldn’t accept a black man as their president… did everything their little brains could to strip me of legitimacy. How did Madiba do it? How did he win the hearts of the white racists? Really, what did he have that I haven’t got? Was it because he was a nonthreatening, grandfatherly old man, while I was young and virile? Come on, I’m not some angry ghetto dude. I’m not Malcolm X. I’m not even Kanye West. There’s gotta be more to it.
There is. It probably didn’t help that most of us expected Obama to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or that he took office during the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It also wasn’t his fault that he faced a screeching chorus of haters who would have opposed and undermined him even if he had single-handedly revived the economy like a man with jumper cables.
And yet the fault lies not only with the Obama-deranged Republicans but within himself. I’ve noticed that the president tends to say all the right things in his public addresses, but that his deeds rarely measure up to his words. He promised to close Gitmo, solve the illegal immigrant conundrum, even acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians after 90-plus years of systematic denial. No deal.
Worse yet, he famously pledged that “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” What was he thinking? Either the man was seriously misinformed about his own healthcare reform, or he was lying through his teeth. And if he was lying about his most important domestic achievement, we have to wonder what else he’s been hiding from us. Credibility is like a necklace: break it in one place and all the beads go scattering to the four corners of the room.
I think Obama likes the idea of being president more than he likes the actual duties that go with the job. He’s a dynamo on the campaign trail and at public rallies. When he speaks, he can be cool and witty or appropriately impassioned as the situation demands. But he seems to lack the vital leadership gene that converts thought into action and consensus. He has no taste for the visceral give-and-take of politics; he’s not a happy warrior like FDR or a skilled behind-the-scenes arm-twister like LBJ. Obama is essentially a cerebral introvert in an extrovert’s profession.
Here’s where Obama and Mandela part company. By all accounts, the late Madiba loved to mingle with his countrymen — black, white, and all shades in between. He was disarmingly humble and devoid of ego. He’d meet face-to-face with his adversaries and encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect. Reports of his warm and affectionate nature were almost universal — all the more extraordinary coming on the heels of a brutal 27-year incarceration. He entered prison an angry militant and miraculously emerged with a loving heart.
Mandela had been tested like no other national leader in memory, with the possible exception of the polio-ravaged FDR. Obama’s life was cushy by comparison; once he got his head straight in college, the world seemed to roll out the red carpet for him. The obstacles he suddenly faced as president must have shocked him to the core.
I’ve taken more than my fair share of abuse, Obama might have thought as he sat there in Johannesburg. I still don’t get it. Clinton was a compulsive womanizer, and everybody loves him. Bush 43 took a lot of heat, but he deserved it. Heck, even Nixon didn’t have it this bad until midway through Watergate. I could have been another Mandela, and look at my presidency now. Smoking ruins. Man, I could use a break.
So Helle Thorning-Schmidt nudged him and held up her smartphone.
A selfie with Helle and David Cameron? Sure, why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.