Harvard professor Howard Gardner says that leaders do two important things: tell a powerful story to their audience, and embody that story in their own lives.
One of President Obama's key stories has always been about diversity as strength. And his life is the embodiment of that dimension of the American dream. Think about how he began his DNC speech in 2004, which wound up being the first step of his journey to being President. He told the story of his Muslim grandfather, a domestic servant to the British, who provided his son the magical escalator of ambition and education. That man traveled to the United States and met a young woman from Kansas. The two of them -- Kenya and Kansas meeting in Hawaii -- gave birth to a future President.
Obama's first book, Dreams from my Father, is about a young man coming to terms with his own patchwork heritage. The theme can be fairly summed up in Whitman's great line: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
And a huge part of his Presidency is going to be devoted to -- as he stated in his Inaugural Address -- making sure America's patchwork heritage is both an internal strength and a force for peace in the world. He's making strides in that direction already, both symbolic and substantive. I was present at the Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral the day after the Inauguration. The people on stage included the progressive Evangelical Jim Wallis, the President of the Islamic Society of North America Ingrid Mattson, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Rabbi David Saperstein and about a dozen other religious leaders. It was a wonderful display of American civil religion embodied in interfaith cooperation. More substantively, Obama has appointed two high-level representatives to deal with some of the thorniest religious conflicts on the planet - Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and George Mitchell special envoy to the Middle East.
Let's see if the rest of America and the world follows his lead.