WASHINGTON -- In mid-afternoon, a somber, reflective Barack Obama sat on a stage here with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, talking about the limits of the presidency as he struggles to “push the boulder up the hill.” Two hours later, Obama was back in the White House, praising the memory of a man who inspired him to enter politics years ago -- and who moved whole mountains.
The death of Nelson Mandela at 95 comes at a time when the once-young American whom Mandela inspired has grown ruefully aware of the limits of what he can do and is searching for the restorative power of first principles of the kind that Mandela championed all his life: justice; mutual human sympathy; a colorblind, not blinded, world.
“I can’t fully imagine my own life without thinking of the example of Nelson Mandela,” a saddened Obama said in the briefing room Thursday. The president recalled that his first political act as a college student was to protest South African apartheid -- the evil against which Mandela for decades had literally staked his own life.
It’s an “example” not only for the youthful Obama, but for the now-beleaguered president, at his lowest point in the polls, facing the ennui of a second term and a botched health care rollout.
“The interesting thing about having been president now for five years,” he told Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” “is that it makes you humbler -- as opposed to cockier -- about what an individual can do.
“You recognize that you are just part of the sweep of history. And your job is really to push the boulder up the hill a little bit before someone else pushes it up a little further. The task never stops of perfecting our union."
The source of strength for any president, Obama said, was to stay “close to the people.”
“The American people are good and decent,” he told Matthews. “And yes, sometimes we get very divided ... As long as any president stays close to the people, I think they’re going to do all right.”
If the president needed a reminder of how to stay the course -- and stay close to the people -- the story of Mandela provided it for him.