Welcome to Your New Job, Mr. President

On the eve of his inauguration, eight world leaders tell Barack Obama how not to screw up.


On Jan. 21, 2009, Barack Obama will wake up as president of the United States — a position only four other living people have held. And although the new president will have a well-stocked cabinet of advisors, very few can relate to what it feels like to suddenly be in charge of an entire country. It is precisely because of Obamas dual challenges — domestic and international — that FP sought the advice of former heads of state and government the world over. In telephone interviews over the last few weeks, past presidents and prime ministers on four continents passed along their advice and congratulations for the new leader of the free world. Excerpts:

On the meaning of Obama’s election:

[As the first woman president of Ireland], I thanked the women of Ireland on the night of the election count. I felt I owed it to them to be a president who was proud of the fact that I was a woman. So I would say [to Obama], be yourself in that senseas an African-American who has received the trust of the people. Do it your way. Be very conscious of being true to that difference that has been accepted and trusted to bring about change in a very difficult time.

–Mary Robinson, president of Ireland (1990-1997)

Obama will be the person who lives up to [the] title leader of the free world more than any U.S. president in the past. Before, with all due respect, it was kind of like the baseball World Series. It was the World Series, but it was really just the American baseball championship. I dont think anyone has had the characteristics — biography, lifestyle, and aptitude — that Mr. Obama brings to that job.

–Jorge Quiroga, president of Bolivia (2001-2002)

[In India], we have many things in common with the poor of America. Indians have a great deal of regard for American society, and Obama’s coming up shows again how any person can come up. We admire it.

–I.K. Gujral, prime minister of India (1997-1998)

I went to the U.S. for the first time in 1951 to start [at] Duke University. The first day that I landed in Raleigh airport, I discovered restrooms for white men and colored women. This is the same United States that elected President Obama. That capacity to change is what allows the so-called American dream. Those values are probably the best tools that the next president can show to the world. [Obama] will have tremendous moral power precisely because of what he has achieved in his personal capacity.

–Ricardo Lagos, president of Chile (2000-2006)

On the one thing youd tell Obama if you met him:

Just one word: consistency. Consistency in policy design, and consistency in the implementation of those designs. You can have a very consistent policy, but if the level of implementation varies through time, youre not going to be as effective. For example, you may have a consistent two-state solution policy in the Middle East, but if the level of engagement wanes or oscillates, then you will not be as successful.

–Jorge Quiroga

Please explain to the world that the same values that have been exemplified in U.S. history are the values that we would like to see also [on] the global stage. We should have a big change in the world, like you’re about to have now in the United States!

–Ricardo Lagos

Keep your children out of the limelight; theyre too exposed [and] that cant be easy to cope with at that age. The more they can settle down with quiet anonymous lives in the good school youve chosen for them, the better.

Second, recognize the importance of the full participation and empowerment of women. If he could find the language to do that early on, it would greatly strengthen his own capacity to gain momentum on his decisions.

–Mary Robinson

I would tell Barack Obama that we are a country that is [like] Gandhi, and anything one wants to understand about India, one should read Gandhi more than anyone else.

–I.K. Gujral

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