American Mandela

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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."

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Mandela smiled a lot. That smile spoke volumes, setting aside the fears of the minority white population, convincing them that he meant them no harm. He proclaimed himself South African uber alles, above all else.

"We place our vision of change on the table not as conquerors but as fellow citizens," Mandela said in a speech before 80,000 supporters who gathered in Cape Town to celebrate his election.

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Mandela demonstrated his concept of national unity by giving his defeated rivals powerful portfolios in his African National Congress cabinet. He named former President F.W. deKlerk, who presided over the apartheid-loving National Party and came in second in the 1994 election, one of two deputy presidents. He named three other rivals to senior administration posts, including Home Affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party and Finance minister Derek Keys of the National Party.

One especially controversial appointment was the choice of Pik Botha as minister of Minerals and Energy, a fiscally important post in the diamond-based economy of the country. Botha was a widely disliked figure among black South Africans and within the global community of anti-apartheid activists because he had long served as foreign minister to President deKlerk and former President P.W. Botha (no relation).

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Needless to say, there was even more teeth-gnashing over the Botha appointment and the other Nats than can be heard today over Obama's choice of Clinton-era appointees to his cabinet.

But Mandela had a plan to win over his critics: Kill them with kindness and cooperation. And guess what? It worked.

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While some on Mandela's left quietly grumbled (notably his estranged wife, Winnie Mandela, who was also included in the first post-apartheid cabinet), those on the right drowned them out with applause.

In 1994, the far-right National Review rarely offered a kind word about black South Africa's freedom struggle. But it did consider incoming President Mandela as the "Indispensable Man."

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History anoints such indispensable leaders. At other dire moments in history, Lincoln and Roosevelt proved to be the tonic for this nation's ills. Now the Oval Office belongs to Obama.

Since winning his election, the president-elect has been as solid and sure-footed as he was during the campaign. He's sought out the best minds and surrounded himself with talented, if not universally popular, advisers. He's slowly and deliberately set in motion a plan to turn campaign talk into real policies of his administration. And he's reminded a Bush-weary nation that one president serves at a time, a tease to the change that's on the way.

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But the qualities that will make Obama a good, if not great, president demand that he resists limiting himself and the nation to an American-only standard. Exemplars of historic leadership can—and often do—come from beyond our borders. Mandela's intelligence, oratorical skills and global embrace allowed South Africa to remain intact and prosper at a critical juncture in his nation's history.

Obama would be wise to follow his example.

Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.

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