Like Barack Obama, Brazil's president rose to power from poverty and the political left. But during six years in office, he has ruled from the center, tapping Brazil's market strengths, earning him world respect. When the two men finally meet, it may be President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – or "Lula" – who teaches Mr. Obama a thing or two.
A series on Brazil running this week in The Christian Science Monitor shows this "sleeping giant" nation has become a bright-eyed go-getter, due in large part to Mr. da Silva's embrace of practical solutions that please global investors and also most Brazilians (his popularity ratings are very high).
In many areas, such as agriculture, social policy, and diplomacy, Brazil now serves as model to other countries, especially in Africa. Poor Brazilian families, for instance, are given welfare cash, but only if they keep their children in school – an innovative policy that unites politicians of the left and right.
Just last week, in a sign of Brazil's new clout, Mr. da Silva hosted a gathering of the world's largest economies and chastised the United States for its responsibility in the global financial crisis – which is hitting Brazil, too. But more than criticize, the former union leader and founder of the Workers Party also warned countries not to resort to trade protectionism in their reaction to the slowdown. (Obama wants to rewrite NAFTA.)
More than their common background, the two men share another thing: A former Harvard professor of Obama's, Brazilian-born Roberto Mangabeira Unger, is now chief strategist for da Silva. A philosopher, he has kept in touch with Obama and could serve as a link in what could be a powerful partnership for the Western Hemisphere.
For now, Brazil is doing well as a regional leader. While da Silva still often speaks the leftist jargon of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, his actions show a will to lead the region with market-driven solutions and to forge a geopolitics that doesn't tweak the Yankee nose.
While the country is still beset with corruption and poverty, Brazil has built a big middle class. And with newly discovered oil wealth, da Silva further gains the stature to lead Latin America. He's been able to send peacekeeping troops to Haiti, calm the threat of war between Colombia and Venezuela, and deal with a crisis in next-door Bolivia.
Most of all, after building up Brazil's economy, he now sees a role as crafter of a new world economic order. With a landmass the size of the US and nearly 200 million people, Brazil is a global leader in many industries and farm products, including biofuels. It finally deserves a world debut after decades of an uncertain future.
Brazil knows, however, that its newfound respect is on the line as it tries to get a handle on the loss of its Amazon forest, which is critical to stopping climate change. But true to Brazilian pragmatism, many forest communities are being paid to guard against deforestation.
If da Silva can keep a healthy nationalism, he'll find a partner in Obama on issues from energy to security. The former union leader and the former community organizer both know how to negotiate a deal for the sake of the common good.
Like da Silva and Obama, the US and Brazil have too much in common not to share regional and global leadership.