American Mandela

Forget Lincoln. Forget FDR. The most apt Obama comparison is with the South African legend.


It's become something of a parlor game for the chattering class to compare President-elect Barack Obama to the pantheon of presidents.

Is Obama the second coming of Abraham Lincoln? A recent Newsweek magazine cover cast Honest Abe's long shadow behind the incoming president's silhouette. Inside, writers Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe found the parallels between the two men irresistible. "It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln," they wrote. "Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis."

Or is Obama the reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt? Time magazine thinks so, putting a fused portrait of the two men on its cover.

At times, even Obama encourages the idea that he's channeling both of those beloved presidents. He often compares himself to Lincoln, invoking the Great Emancipator in speeches and in his very open effort to choose a cabinet with echoes of Lincoln's "team of rivals."

He also claims Roosevelt as a mentor. "What you see in FDR that I hope my team can emulate, is not always getting it right, but projecting a sense of confidence, and a willingness to try things, and experiment in order to get people working again," Obama said.

Enough already with the dead white presidents. There's an equally—perhaps more—apt yardstick by which to measure Obama: South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

Similar to Mandela's 1994 election as the first black president of South Africa, Obama's victory as the first black U.S. president is a globally recognized historical moment. But the similarities between the two men extend beyond skin color or prideful racial milestones.

Mandela was an international figure, admired abroad even more than at home, which made him and his "change" policies all more palatable for domestic consumption. 

Just as Obama will, Mandela took over in his country during a period of fierce financial stress, debilitating social divisions and worldwide revulsion at the ruling party's refusal to change its discredited policies. And, pushing the analogy to the limit, South Africa was even at war—a civil war that raged in impoverished township streets—that further divided the country at home and alienated it abroad.

Confident in his own skin, Mandela assumed black South African's allegiance and affection. But he understood equally well that he had to prove himself to skeptical whites, if he was to keep the country from flying off in divergent directions. His early moves as president revealed the deft leadership qualities that kept his base with him and expanded his popularity among critics.