03/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Message To Obama: Study Mandela

One of America's most prominent and well-respected pollsters has a piece of advice for Barack Obama: study Nelson Mandela.

Stan Greenberg, who helped guide Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992 and was credited by Mandela for his presidential victory in '94, drew political parallels between the current White House occupant and the famed anti-Apartheid leader. Both transcended deep and bitter racial divisions, he said. Both promised a fundamental restructuring of the political and economic institutions in their countries.

But Mandela's political history also contains a cautionary note, one from which Obama would be wise to learn: even in the most fortunate of circumstances, politicians stumble.

"I would advise [Obama] to read the Mandela chapter very closely," said Greenberg, discussing his newly released book, "Dispatches From The War Room," which documents his work with five prominent world leaders. "Obviously you had a big crisis and big transformation then. There were new electoral alignments and [Mandela] had high popular support and some big achievements. And yet, even there, when people are desperate, you can lose their support."

"I'm really impressed with Obama and his leadership and his White House and his team," he added. "I'm impressed with the big forces that have emerged from winning the 2006 and 2008 elections, which have created a powerful moment for Obama to do well. But, it is also true that in every place that I've worked, even in South Africa with Mandela, [presidents and prime ministers] have all struggled to keep people with them. There is disillusionment in every one of these cases. There is a sense of high hopes and then despair when they fail to deliver. Look at the South Africa chapter on this. You have Mandela who [brought] an end of segregation, people of color now sitting in the parliament after it was all white, water and electricity going to the African areas, and within a year it is like nothing. 'Where is the housing? Where are the jobs?' It quickly turned into disillusionment."

It is a hard reality for elected officials to confront, but one that Obama should brace for. In "Dispatches From The War Room," Greenberg details how, just years after triumphantly ascending to power, Mandela was confronted with bleak news: his party was being blamed for failures in governance and was sitting at the "red line" of 50 percent popularity.

"Mandela was disturbed and did not dispute the reality or mask his distress," Greenberg writes of a breakfast the two shared one morning in Johannesburg. "Then, rather than drawing a wise conclusion as he usually does, he simply said, 'We have much to do.'"

Dislodged from its complacency, the ANC went on to retain power in the next election (though Mandela was not on the ballot). But the lesson of that event -- one that Greenberg learned all too well from the U.S. congressional elections in 1994 -- was that, in politics, nothing lasts.

"All of these leaders are weaker than we think they are," said Greenberg. "Maybe that won't be true with Obama. But there always ends up being competing forces... It is not like they walk away from their promises. They are all desperate to succeed on the things they ran on."

Greenberg should know. He has consulted and polled for some of the most dynamic and, in some elements, tragic figures in global politics, individuals whose careers were defined at the crossing of politics and principles. As detailed in "Dispatches," for example, Tony Blair found his career "undermined" by the crystallization of his religious and ideological support for the Iraq War. "He tried to educate his own country and its voters and he moved them," he said. "But, ultimately, he lost."

On an opposite end stands Ehud Barak, who came to his high-minded moment from a position of weakness -- "a popularity rating lower than George Bush during his low point in the Iraq War," as Greenberg describes it. And yet, in the process of attempting to forge a peace settlement at Camp David in 2000, he managed to persuade a significant portion of the Israeli populace that the division of Jerusalem was a bitter pill that must be swallowed.

"He said he would never cross that red line," recalled Greenberg. "And I told him, I think this is one issue that is a dead end. But I watched over one month when people were forced to face the issues and the advantages of reaching an agreement. And I think there was a 20-point shift in attitude over about a four-week period. I said to myself: 'If I can't believe people on Jerusalem why should I believe them on anything.'"

There are a variety of lessons that Obama could draw from these and other anecdotes in Greenberg's book: polls are important but should be considered with caution; popularity is finite. To this point, Greenberg applauded Obama's willingness to govern from outside the confines of the White House. "He has gone out to bring people early on to put pressure on Washington to make change," he said.

But all of this, he cautions, should be done with the knowledge that expectations can be a double-edged sword. Shortly before the humiliating defeats in the '94 election, Greenberg penned a memo for the White House. "The discussion of economic progress must always acknowledge that most people are not feeling the change and that progress is not good enough." The idea was that if the president were to claim legislative victory, he would alienate those voters who continued to feel left behind. "I soon realized that Clinton, who never settled for less than an A for effort, just wouldn't say it," Greenberg writes. The ANC leaders were more receptive to the message.

For Obama to learn from Mandela and avoid Clinton's fate he may very well have to confront a similar political dynamic.

"There has to be a perception that the Democrats are governing successfully," said Greenberg, "that they are acting valiantly to make progress and not stuck by gridlock or being corrupted by Washington, that they continue to battle for ordinary people. And there needs to be some evidence that there is some movement upwards in 2010."