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Obama, halfway around the world, has message for Washington

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) pays his respect to former South African President Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel (2nd L) after his
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) pays his respect to former South African President Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel (2nd L) after his

By Steve Holland

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - President Barack Obama traveled halfway around the world on Tuesday to deliver a message he hoped would be heard by his political opponents back home, and some U.S. rivals abroad.

Obama's speech at a rain-soaked soccer stadium in Johannesburg was perhaps the most electrifying moment of a day of remembrances about the life of Nelson Mandela, who died last Thursday at age 95.

Throughout his speech, Obama sprinkled references to his determination to work to reduce income inequality in the United States.

His appeal to people who embrace Mandela's life mission to actually live by it may have been directed toward his Republican opponents, who have sought to stymie his agenda on many fronts.

"There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Obama said, using Mandela's clan name.

Obama's brief trip to South Africa offered a respite from partisan battles in Washington over spending and, more recently, the botched rollout of his signature healthcare plan.

The troubles have weighed heavily on his presidency and contributed to a decline in his popularity among Americans, who now give him a 38 percent job approval rating, among the lowest of his five years in office.

While the U.S. economy is showing some signs of strength, the improvements are not trickling through to the middle class.

Obama wants the U.S. Congress to improve the plight of middle-class Americans by approving a higher minimum wage, more spending on education for children and an overhaul of immigration laws as ways to boost the American economy.

His appeals, however, are not gaining much traction among Republicans, who see his proposals as another way to increase the tax burden on Americans.

Obama also preached a broader message at the Mandela memorial.

Delivered before both Cuban President Raul Castro and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, his remarks could easily be construed as being directed at their governments and others with whom the United States has differences over human rights.

"Around the world today, men and women are still in prison for their political beliefs and are still persecuted for what they look like and how they worship and who they love. That is happening today," he said.

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."

Promoting freedom and human rights and ending wars are difficult, he argued, but "South Africa shows us we can choose."

"We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity," Obama said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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