06/30/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2013

What Mandela and Obama Really Represent

As the 94-year-old South African President Nelson Mandela struggles for his life in a hospital, it is a moment for us all to consider what his presidency, as well as that of President Obama, means for us.

The achievement of these two men is obvious. efore they rose to the presidencies in their respective nations, the idea of a black man becoming the leader of these nations was far-fetched at best. In the case of South Africa it was almost unthinkable and in the case of the United States, it was regarded as something that might eventually happen but not in our lifetime. And yet that is precisely what happened in both places and with surprising speed.

On the surface, it might just seem like a victory for people of African descent but in reality it is a massive victory for everyone. What Mandela and Obama have achieved transcends race and speaks of a tectonic shift in national attitudes. The blunt fact is that a black man could not have risen to the top leadership position in South Africa or the United States at this time in history without people of all races having evolved enough to seriously consider that, let alone support it. We have come a very long way.

It is unfortunate then that here in America we are again confronting issues of racial disharmony and suspicion fueled by the opportunistic rhetoric and actions of politicians, activist judges, and some media outlets. Obama, despite winning a resounding mandate in 2008 and a lesser, but still potent, one in 2012, has been called variously a socialist, the anti-Christ, an angry black man, an apologist for Islamist fanatics, Hitler, and many other names. While it is tempting to single out the Tea Party for being guilty of such inane thinking and cheap fear-mongering, it would be inaccurate, since the broader Republican Party has been just as aggressive in smearing the president through false accusations and racially-tinged insults.

Obama is not perfect and scrutinizing our leaders is our patriotic responsibility, but what we have seen from the GOP during this presidency has been unusually mean-spirited and counter-productive. It is as if the Republicans are interested not so much in questioning the president's decisions but in destroying the man. But what they don't realize is that in doing so they are not just attacking Obama but the very principles that allowed him to become president and which have brought all of us much further than we ever thought possible as a people.

At one time, as a prisoner, Mandela was a thorn in the side of the white regime and a symbol of an ideal that had to be suppressed. Similarly, Obama represents the ideals of equality, opportunity, and progressiveness that the GOP seems desperately to want to suppress. Instead of celebrating our first black president and what he says about our national evolution, the Republicans instead prefer to insult him, demonize him, and even sabotage him.

Like Mandela, Obama has blazed a trail for everyone, not just for African-Americans, and shown us what is possible when our better natures prevail. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he is the personification of the American dream and as such, should be a cause for national pride, not derision. People the world over strive for equality and opportunity, and by defeating the odds twice to become our president during one of the most challenging times in our history, Obama has shown us that those two things are both possible and achievable; and by fighting for the rights of the average American, he has shown us how a real leader should govern.

Political beliefs and ideas shift over time, but the values which define our nation are a constant. That is what Obama represents, that is why he is an important figure in our history, and that is why he deserves our respect -- even when we disagree with him.

SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He is a banker, has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is the author of "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit