What Obama Can Learn from Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan

December 10th, 2013

There are two scenarios where President Obama genuinely appears thoughtful and emotional.

He’s thoughtful as he recounts and admires Ronald Reagan’s ability to communicate and connect with average Americans.  While I have little doubt that he voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in elections against Reagan, he appears to at least appreciate and admire that Reagan was successful in carrying out his principles and ideals as president even though Obama likely deeply opposed them.

Obama is emotional as he recounts the struggles Nelson Mandela endured to end apartheid in South Africa.  Whenever Obama speaks of Mandela, his words are clearly more than something crafted for him and loaded on a teleprompter.  He deeply means what he’s saying.

Throughout the years of Obama’s presidency, one thing is becoming abundantly clear each day.  While he may have extensive knowledge of many subjects, history and biographies of world leaders past and present isn’t high on his list.  He seems moved by generalities of events and people, but he doesn’t know more about them than the average person who finds history a little boring.

It’s a shame because if he really took the time to understand more about these two men than he seems inspired to know, he might find a few gems of wisdom or behaviors to guide him and make him successful.

From Reagan, he could learn that effective communication is more than just delivering pretty words. The average high school student could likely craft a marvelous speech loaded with platitudes and idealistic visions.  What makes a great speechmaker a great leader is the ability to share a vision and then demonstrably carry out those ideas.  Reagan could do this.  He didn’t just give speeches or addresses from the Oval Office.  He set an agenda and followed through.  When subsequent generations talk about what Reagan might have done in a given situation, there is little doubt in anyone’s minds exactly what that means.

When it comes to Mandela, Obama could learn a great deal about demeanor.  Those close to Mandela describe a man who felt deep internal bitterness over his twenty-seven years in prison but who never gave a hint of it to the outside world.  Instead, he constantly worked to embody a person ready to put aside personal animosity and past feelings to move forward towards a greater good.  As president of South Africa, he consciously chose to step aside after a term rather than assume the role of dictator.

While many people describe Obama as “likeable,” there is a side of him that isn’t particularly pleasant at all.  He doesn’t have the ability to hide his contempt for certain individuals or groups.  He can be cutting and downright rude sometimes when referring to people who disagree with him.  It’s no wonder then that he has such a hard time working across the aisle to achieve broad policy goals.  His “my way or the highway” approach tends to cause political foes to dig in their heels. In this regard, he is no Nelson Mandela.

At 52-years-old, it’s difficult to imagine President Obama changing his personality much beyond what we’ve all seen thus far.

If he could, though, even just a little bit, try to emulate admirable traits in men he likes to hold up as examples on occasion like Reagan and Mandela, history would record his presidency as markedly better than it’s likely to become.