WASHINGTON — Counting himself among the millions influenced by Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama on Thursday mourned the death of the anti-apartheid icon with whom he shares the distinction of being his nation's first black president.
"He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages," Obama said in a somber appearance at the White House.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set."
Mandela's illness prevented a meeting with Obama when the U.S. president visited South Africa this summer.
Still, the former South African president's legacy influenced nearly every aspect of Obama's trip. Obama, along with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, made an emotional visit to Robben Island, standing quietly together in the tiny cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
Obama is likely to travel to South Africa for Mandela's funeral, though a trip has not yet been announced. Obama ordered that the U.S. flag be flown at half-staff at the White House, federal buildings, military bases and embassies until sunset Monday.
Obama's political rise has drawn inevitable comparisons to Mandela's. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners and the first black men elected to lead their countries.
The two men met in person only once, a hastily arranged meeting in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Obama was a U.S. senator. They did speak occasionally on the phone, including after the 2008 election, when Mandela called Obama to congratulate him. Obama also wrote the introduction to Mandela's memoir, Conversations With Myself.