President Obama’ speech in the stadium in Johannesburg at the Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela was as powerful a presentation as he has ever delivered. His remarks were elevating and inspiring for his family, all South Africans, all Africans, and the entire world. It was a positive, uplifting tribute to a great leader and a strong challenge to his followers; he included. Undoubtedly, this speech delivered by the first African American President, the son of a Kenyan father, crossed all the groupings and stereotypes in every part of the world. The speech also was not without sharp criticism and reproach to the assembled world leaders. It was Obama at his most convincing and committed best. This President who was so impressive on the campaign stump twice and who wowed the audience at the 2004 Democratic Convention as a mere Illinois State Senator, did it again in South Africa.
Many great U.S. Senators in history have been powerful orators, but not necessarily great political deal-makers. Legislating requires other skills as does governing. President Obama returns home now desperately needing to get his political and legislative ducks lined up so that the next few months produce some consequential victories in his confrontation with Congress. He needs to translate the electric capacity that he demonstrated again in FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. If he fails to do so, only the speeches will be his legacy after eight years in the White House.
This is a great opportunity for the President to turn things around and use the American bully pulpit to aggressively move his agenda; to bring the American people back behind him; to confront his opponents; and to take some genuine political risks. It will be evident by the end of February at which time at least the budget and the debt ceiling confrontations will have once again been enjoined; and either resolved and reconciled or just once again kicked down the road. This will require more than speechifying.