There was something surreal about President Obama delivering his eulogy at the memorial service for Former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg Tuesday. It was delivered in the rain as if to underscore the cosmic dimension of the bond connecting Obama with the subject of his remarks, and of the two of them with all the rest of us on this lonely, spinning orb.
Underscored by shared struggles against the systemic oppression of their race, Obama eulogizing Mandela was akin to looking at a double-image photo – one of Obama and one of Mandela overlaid on each other. What animated Mandela, as Obama was expressing it, was animating Obama in those moments. One could see the image of Mandela in the image of Obama, and vice versa.
Obama would be the last person to suggest such a parallelism, and its true that Mandela’s pathway to his great contributions to humanity took him through far more difficult circumstances.
But Mandela caused Obama to be, and Obama’s achievements, becoming the first African-American president of the U.S., themselves radiate the spirit of Mandela. Mr. Obama, you are the hopes and dreams that Mandela had all those years in prison to advance justice and dignity for all the downtrodden of the world, and in your remarks Tuesday, you embraced that, and its significance for your on-going mission.
In spelling out the aspects of Mandela’s political achievements, Obama showed clearly that he “gets it” about Mandela, internalizing it for himself. “Like Ghandi,” he said of Mandela, “like Dr. King,” “like Abraham Lincoln,” “like America’s Founding Fathers,” he led a resistance movement, gave a powerful voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice, held his country together when threatened with breaking apart, and erected a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations.
Future generations may look back on Obama much like they look upon Mandela now.
From that vantage point, the vantage point of the future, look at what President Obama has achieved, is achieving and has signaled he intends to achieve.
He will be the man credited with, for the first time, achieving a form of universal health care, providing every American with the opportunity for coverage, something that many leaders tried, but none before him could achieve.
He will be credited with taking the extraordinary measures required to avert a second great depression triggered by his irresponsible predecessor, achieved by unleashing a massive stimulus program and a bailout of the U.S. auto industry that accomplished their intent.
He will be credited with presiding over the extension of full equal justice under the law to the one remaining class of citizens, lesbians and gays, denied it.
In the current work of his administration, if successful, he will be credited with substituting plowshares for swords as a model for U.S. foreign policy in some of the most volatile regions of the world, with the groundbreaking accord for reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran being a prime example.
To achieve this, he has will have to stand against the full ferocity of the “dogs of war,” the “military and industrial complex” with its tireless lust for profiting from perpetual global conflict.
He will also begin seriously to reign in the frightening rogue spy octopus of the NSA.
Now, Obama has signaled his intent to go after possibly the biggest challenge of all, to break down the rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor in America, the greed-driven, obscenely idolatrous obsession of the top one percent of America’s wealthy, who are now earning 340 times the income of the average working stiff and want the differential to go higher still.
To the extent that Obama is serious about this – and the entirety of his legacy and parallels to Mandela compels us to believe he is – there is so much more involved than a slight increase in the minimum wage. It may go to a far more profound restructuring and deployment of the nation’s wealth in ways that will cause every Wall Street CEO and their yammering CNBC and Fox lap dogs to shriek with terror.