Mandela was a consummate negotiator. Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. I don’t envy Obama’s having to deal with intransigent Republicans or his own demanding base, but Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. By comparison, the tea party is, well, a tea party.
Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he were discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: This is fun. We’ve had joyful presidents — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.
Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. In fairness to Obama, Mandela had a cause of surpassing moral clarity. The U.S. president is rarely blessed with problems so, literally, black and white. And if Obama leaves behind universal healthcare and immigration reform — two initiatives that have consistently defeated previous presidents — that will be no small legacy. But tell me, do you have a clear sense of what moral purpose drives our president?