The New Mandela; Obama's First 100 Days: As Barack Obama Reaches the Milestone of His First 100 Days in Power, Senedd Correspondent David Williamson Assesses Whether the US President's Achievements Have So Far Lived Up to Their Astonishing Weight of Expectation

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), April 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

The New Mandela; Obama's First 100 Days: As Barack Obama Reaches the Milestone of His First 100 Days in Power, Senedd Correspondent David Williamson Assesses Whether the US President's Achievements Have So Far Lived Up to Their Astonishing Weight of Expectation


Byline: David Williamson

THE United States of America has had a black Democratic president for 100 days and Barack Obama's revolution is just beginning.

In the months and years ahead, he will try to coax drivers out of petrol-gulping automobiles and persuade lawmakers to back healthcare proposals which could earn him a position in history as America's Aneurin Bevan.

But in the crucible of the credit crunch, he has already proven a president of striking ambition and audacity.

It may seem crass to draw comparisons between Obama and Nelson Mandela, the hero of the South African liberation struggle.

No hardship Obama experienced, on his journey from a single-parent home to the Ivy League, equates to Mandela's apartheid persecution.

Yet in these earliest of days of Obama's premiership, in his response to politically inflammable circumstances, he has displayed instincts which would bring pride to the 90-year-old.

The similarities are not limited to their victories over racial prejudice.

Each man has pushed forward a radical vision that is wrapped not in anger or indignation but serenity.

Mandela won global respect for the dignity with which he emerged from imprisonment and began the slow process of reconciliation and negotiated change.

The world would have understood if he strode out of jail and called on his supporters to shatter every institution of white power.

Instead, in a move of magnanimous genius, he made it possible for black South Africans and white South Africans to go forward together..

Likewise, Obama has made it clear he wants to draw a line under the most controversial aspects of the Bush administration and consign these to history rather than rake over past scandals.

He has released memos laying bare interrogation procedures which many consider torture and banned these tactics, but rank and file officers will not be prosecuted.

The process of closing Guantanamo Bay has begun and the term "War on Terror" is out of use.

Prosecutions of individual officers might further demonise the Bush administration and give the Democrats future electoral advantage, but it would also pit hawks and doves against each other at a time when there are waiting challenges - such as the economy and healthcare - which he wants a united America to confront.

Yet the greatest similarity Obama shares with Mandela is an ability to appear calm in circumstances in which most people would be shredded by stress, anxiety and self-doubt.

Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela on his autobiography, remembers a time when they were travelling in an aeroplane and a propeller ceased spinning.

The landing crew at the airport began preparations for a crash landing.

Mandela continued reading his newspaper while terror curdled inside Stengel.

He recalled in a documentary: "I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be." Later, when the plane had safely landed, Mandela admitted that, despite his serene appearance, he had been frightened.

Stengel said: "I was given courage by looking at him, because he was pretending not to be scared, and that's what he did for his whole life.

"The more you pretend that you're not scared, the more not scared you become." The Obama presidency began at the least propitious moment for a former first-term senator catapulted into the Oval Office through a cloud of hype and expectation.

History will reveal whether his policy response has been a flourish of genius or a leap into bankrupting mayhem, but there is no dispute that his equanimity has steadied nerves at a crucial time.

The US economy was in great peril when he arrived with his family on Pennsylvania Avenue and put basketball hoops on the tennis court - and it remains so.

Not only was the nation locked in the worst recession for half a century, the crises in its most venerable financial institutions suggested this engine room of global capitalism might be wrecked beyond redemption. …

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The New Mandela; Obama's First 100 Days: As Barack Obama Reaches the Milestone of His First 100 Days in Power, Senedd Correspondent David Williamson Assesses Whether the US President's Achievements Have So Far Lived Up to Their Astonishing Weight of Expectation
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