The comparison is so crude as to be laughable, but given the mainstream media’s immediate linkage of the two, and President Barack Obama’s insistence on talking about himself in his eulogy for Nelson Mandela, it must be said: Obama is no Mandela.
For one thing, their societies are different: the U.S. bears no resemblance to post-apartheid South Africa. For another, Mandela chose to govern differently from Obama in many key respects.
1. Mandela was a uniter, Obama is a divider. Mandela was not above playing racial politics at times, but generally did all he could to bring people together, in both real and symbolic ways. He famously donned the Springbok rugby jersey, once a symbol hated by blacks, to show solidarity with whites. Mandela left South Africa more united than when he took office. Obama will leave the U.S. more divided than when he began.
2. Mandela obeyed the constitution and the courts, Obama flouts both. Mandela not only signed a constitution that guaranteed individual rights and constraints on state power, but made an impressive show of subjecting his administration to the will of the courts. Obama, by contrast, is “becoming the very danger the Constitution was designed to avoid,” ignoring court rulings and greatly expanding his executive powers.
3. Mandela was fiscally responsible, Obama is profligate. Mandela’s administration adopted a policy of macroeconomic stability in 1995, putting sound budgets and economic growth before redistribution, resisting massive internal pressure to spend liberally on the poor. Obama, by contrast, has expanded the national debt massively, with little to show for it in either terms of economic growth or addressing economic inequality.
4. Mandela reached out to the opposition, Obama ignores them. Mandela fought pitched political battles, first with F. W. de Klerk’s National Party and then with Tony Leon’s centrist Democratic Party (now the Democratic Alliance under Helen Zille). Yet he reached out constantly to his opponents and met frequently with them. Obama, however, barely bothers to consult his opponents and makes a point of marginalizing them.
5. Mandela was humble, Obama is arrogant. South Africans share stories of seeing Mandela walking down the highway on his daily exercise, or being greeted warmly by him as if by an old friend. He was a larger-than-life figure who was self-effacing, if dignified, in his bearing. Obama, however, built himself a fake Greek temple and refers to himself constantly, elevating himself crudely above the nation he was elected to lead.
Mandela and Obama do share some failings common to most leftist leaders. Mandela passed labor laws that the unions loved but which held back job creation. He tried to offer “free” housing and a “right” to health care, and the result was poor housing and the spread of HIV/Aids. Like Obama, Mandela had a soft spot for the tyrants of the world, including Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, who had supported Mandela’s banned movement in exile.
Yet the contrast is striking. Mandela could have been an inspirational, radical, but ultimately failed political leader, an African Che Guevara. Instead, he chose to be a statesman, dropping revolution for reconciliation. Obama will endure as a historical figure but not as a great president. At almost every turn, he has chosen to pursue failed and outdated ideologies instead of seizing the opportunity to restore America’s potential.