Gorbachev and Obama

mikhail gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Between 1985 and 1991, I was in the Soviet Union for a few weeks almost every summer. It was exciting to see the greater freedoms evidenced there every year under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, more freedom for the press, for demonstrators, for academicians, and for nationalities like the Ukrainians, Armenians, and Estonians. At the same time, Gorbachev was helping end the Cold War—unlike many conservatives I grant him more credit than President Reagan, who also helped end it.

But in the end, Soviet economic and nationality problems reached dangerous proportions, Gorbachev’s country disintegrated beneath him, and at the end of 1991, he was forced to resign. Russian public opinion polls in the 1990s indicated that Russians thought he was one of their worst twentieth-century leaders, worse, for example, than Stalin.

In 2008 I was among a group of Historians for Obama and was thrilled by his election and many of his speeches both before and after it. One of the things I admired about him, as I wrote in 2008, was his respect for wisdom. Over the past year or so, however, I have come to fear that he may possess two of the flaws that led to Gorbachev’s downfall — an inability to forge a political consensus and a failure to articulate a political vision that can inspire average people.

As with Gorbachev, who came to power when the Soviet economy was clearly failing and Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan, Obama inherited a mess from his predecessor. But also like Gorbachev, who tried to bring together old-line Communists and reformers, Obama was unable to forge a political consensus uniting the two sides of the political spectrum. Both leaders tried hard to do so and perceived themselves as leaders who could bring other politicians together. One could argue that the fact that they did not succeed was more due to others (like old-line Communists or unreasonable Republicans) than to themselves. Nevertheless, fail they did.

barack obamaThe second failing that the two leaders shared was perhaps more significant. Neither communicated a clear vision of the future of their country that could inspire average citizens. Whether it was because they had no clear vision, or could not communicate it adequately to the masses, or both, is not altogether clear. With Gorbachev I think it was both. I remember thinking when he was in power that if he had been able to go on television and talk to the Soviet people as Franklin Roosevelt had spoken to the American people during the Great Depression he might have been more successful.

About President Obama many pundits have commented that too often he speaks like a professor — not very flattering to those of us among the professoriate — and that he does not mix as easily among common people as did President Clinton. Here again one thinks of Gorbachev, as opposed to the more natural politician Yeltsin.

A third criticism sometimes heard about both leaders is that they were not decisive enough, but this could flow from the lack of a blueprint as to where exactly they wished to lead their countries.

walter mossOne great difference, however, exists between Gorbachev and Obama. One has long been out of power, and one is still in. And whatever Obama’s failings, he seems far preferable to any of the present Republican candidates to replace him. Besides, it is still possible for Obama to mature as a leader, to develop skills that heretofore have scarcely been apparent. And we should not forget that one of his campaign slogans in 2008 was “Yes, we can!” Not, “Yes, I can!” If Obama’s presidency ends up being considered a failure, he will not be alone in sharing the blame.

Walter Moss

Mr. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), and a list of other recent publications can be found at http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm.


  1. says

    Whether damned or liked or ignored, and whether by total plan or some happenstance, Gorbachev managed to enable himself and others to bring about two BIG changes very necessary and very useful for the world: end of a monolithic USSR, and end of a communist economy there. Maybe these changes were not part of a prior explicit well-articulated vision, but they have been fully accepted as important givens of the global present and future.

    Whereas Obama has managed to …?????

    PS With due respect to commenter Ray, Obama is just about the worst, not the best, that a self-respecting Dem party, with a real program to galvanize or at least offer the nation, could run in 2012. Commenters Veebeep, in-awe and Ryder make good points about Obama’s actual ‘achievements’. I disagree mainly on two details. First, contra in_awe, well-targeted Keynesian stimulus is a good thing and much needed. Too-little-too-late Obama – including in his latest Jobs program – never seriously went far enough in the Keynesian direction. And despite in_awe’s party-line GOP-style agitprop complaints about dictatorial socialist Obama ramrodding reams of ideological legislation, just about the opposite actually happened. Second, to judge by both observed lingo and observed results, there’s no reason to assume that, underneath all the onion layers of dissimulation and self-justification, Obama ‘really’ is a Marxist, even if in his heart-of-hearts (if there is one) he imagines himself to be. A policy and rhetoric whose maximum reach is for the Buffett rule – when allegedly our tax system has already been intended for a century to be progressive – doesn’t qualify as even a minimal Marxist position.

    • Ryder says

      G.W. Bush, Obama, a Democrat Congress, and the Federal Reserve all supported and implemented a massive dose of Keynesian medicine to ***no effect***.

      Those that predicted that after the Keynesian money ran out, they would be screaming for more, have turned out to be fully 100% correct in their predictions.



      Right on the mark.

      To call for more of the same is, as the saying goes, the definition of insanity.

      To even a casual observer, to believe you can spend your way into prosperity is foolish beyond hope.

      Money needs to be spent, all agree, but what Keynesians fail to realize is that where you spend, when you spend and how much, is critically important, and that such determinations are literally impossible for central planners to make. It cannot be done. The result is a haphazard dumping of cash that powerful people easily grab and walk away with. Foolish spending and waste on a massive scale, like Solyndra and so so many others is also fully inevitable.

      You can’t waste your way into prosperity either.

      This is why Keynes fails and always will.

      Hundreds of millions of experts, however, can and WILL spend in a more efficient manner. Something called the “free market”… which works everywhere it is tried.

      They should have ended all payroll taxes for a protracted period, and used the borrowed/printed money to keep government afloat.

      Anyone that cannot instantly name the four critical benefits of such an arrangement are simply not paying attention.

    • in_awe says

      “…well-targeted Keynesian stimulus is a good thing and much needed.”

      I hear this from the left all the time, but when challenged to produce verifiable evidence of this they resort to ad hominen attacks instead. Seriously, please educate me on the success of Keynesian economics on a national scale during non-wartime periods.

      “party-line GOP-style agitprop complaints about dictatorial socialist Obama ramrodding reams of ideological legislation, just about the opposite actually happened.”

      I guess I disagree with your characterization of my comments as saying he succeeded with “reams of ideological legislation”. I said that he ramrodded through “bill after bill without concern for popular support or reasonable justification” which is demonstrably true. Do you remember votes called for after midnight on weekends in the Senate? Or Nancy Pelosi trumpeting that we’ll have to pass the bill to find out what is in it? And laughing in her wicked witch of the north cackle about whether the bill was Constitutional? “Are you serious? Are you SERIOUS?Or the numerous video tapes of Dems at townhall meetings openingly stating that they are not concerned in the least whether a bill conforms to the Constitution?

      Not every bill needed to be ideologically based when the principal ones that were forced through had enormous fiscal and political ramifications. And these have been touted as the “signature accomplishments” of the Obama administration despite huge opposition to them as evidenced by polls results that have held steady or increased since they were passed?

      At the end of the day, I guess that the readers of this site actually agree on one thing: Obama’s presidency has been a disaster that has made things worse rather than better.

      Where we differ is in world views. That will be the battleground come November 2012. And no amount of blaming George Bush or Republicans will mask the truth that Obama is an empty suit and his fling with socializing the US has taken us from bad to worse during his tenure.

  2. says

    Veebeep says, ” A U.S,. president doesn’t need experience in military science, economics, even history, for that matter. He/she needs only to be a good P.R. person with charisma, looks and charm . . . and either a sense of humor or be the butt of all the jokes.”

    Are you kidding? The President should be an individual with extraordinary Judgement, intellect, charisma, leadership, and a sense of values.

    We had what Veep says in Bush wasn’t that enough? We will get it again if people like Veebeep have such low expectations of the World’s Leader and we allow a Republican to be elected.

    Veebeep you need to give this some thought before you write.

    • Ryder says

      What I think Veebeep is saying is that the President is now a figurehead, and is not in fact in charge of anything… a puppet controlled by other powerful men in the shadows.

      In that case, a president doesn’t need any skills at all, except to look presidential, and to take orders.

  3. Veebeep says

    A U.S,. president doesn’t need experience in military science, economics, even history, for that matter. He/she needs only to be a good P.R. person with charisma, looks and charm . . . and either a sense of humor or be the butt of all the jokes. Decisions are made by committee “far from the madding crowd.” It is the prez’s job to follow the orders of those who actually control the money, the guns and the laws–the prez simply administers, if that. I don’t think this one even had anything to do with choosing his party or naming his cabinet and advisers.

  4. Veebeep says

    First of all, the Republicans are already in charge, both of the country and of Obama. All those supposed faults of Obama are moot because the position of president is not one of decision making or power. He was hired to perform as a glib and charming spokesperson for the Republicans to appeal to the 99%ers and express their negative (for the 99%, that is) news in sweet, positive terms, at times claiming he’s fighting for the people when he never does. He’s doing a great job for them, that’s for sure. He hasn’t assassinated any enemies, created any solutions to any problems and he’ll never succeed at implementing ANY reforms that will benefit anyone other than the corporations, the bankers, Wall Street and the wealthy. Historic references don’t apply in this brand new situation. We’ve never seen a corporation-controlled fascist U.S. before. We’re in a BNWO (Brave New World Order).

  5. says

    President Obama inherited an economy on the brink of complete disaster from the Bush/Cheney Administration. The United States might have gone the way of the Soviet Union but those who benefited from the Bush/Cheney days would have been fine with the billions they managed to steal.
    The President has worked against huge odds from the right and the billions that support it.

    We have no choice but to retain the Senate and Presidency and take the House to bring about the changes we need for a better American and a better World.

    Don’t kid yourselves and think that things are going to change for the better overnight. You can count on a change for the worse if the Republicans take control.

    What will happen with those who are complaining then? It is better to be realistic and work to get the most positive changes we can.

    • in_awe says

      Three years into the Obama presidency it is time for Obama’s teflon cape to be shed. For fully two of the three years the Dems controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. Obama ramrodded through bill after bill without concern for popular support or reasonable justification – just for political and ideological purposes. And you STILL blame the Republicans? As for the “billions” that support the right, you forget that the Dems get more in campaign contributions than the Republicans. Including the lion’s share from – gasp – Wall Street!

      His combination of Keynesian policies and administrative dikktats have been an unmitigated disaster and are prolonging the economic hardship in this country. Clearly, more mindless spending as an official policy won’t produce any more positive results that the first few trillion did. It is the indicative of someone who is bankrupt of ideas to keep pursuing these approaches. I find it interesting that Obama’s all the members of his economic brain trust have abandoned him…

  6. in_awe says

    Remember the political adage “It’s the economy stupid”? Guess what? “It’s the economy stupid”

    When the average American family saw its income fall during the months of the “Great Recession”, that was bad. When that same family saw its income fall EVEN MORE both in absolute and percentage terms DURING THE OBAMA RECOVERY it speaks to a failed President and damaging fiscal policies repudiated by cold hard economic realities.

    While Newsweek gloated “we are all socialists now”, the majority of Americans never signed up for that when they pulled the lever for President Hope and Change. Those chickens are now coming home to roost.

    This is a center right country that gave Obama a chance, but he has failed and he now is pursuing a scorched earth campaign that is divisive and contemptuous of the American people. Shame on him. He should follow Lyndon Johnson’s lead and announce that he will not run for a second term. He could then spend his time on trying to fix what he has sown.

  7. Ryder says

    To many, Obama’s nearly complete lack of experience…. real world or otherwise, was loudly cried by the political right, and simply glossed over by the media. Here we are a few years later openly discussing how they were right.

    So one would be foolish to not look at other things they were saying… which they might have also been right about.

    They said he is politically talented… With a gift of sounding convincing, but detached from anything more than the intended result of getting people to like him. They said he is fatally narcissistic, and a political triangulator more than anything else.

    Three years in, there is ample evidence that all of the above are true.

    They said Obama has a Marxist political core. His parents certain were, but there is the question about how much of their Marxist views rubbed off on him.

    If Marxism is his political vision, then as a political triangulator first and foremost, he knows he can’t sell Marxism directly… Americans would reject him. He can’t handle rejection.

    So he uses his considerable talents at speech to disguise and advance Marxism as much as possible, while pretending the represent traditional American values.

    This makes it seem as if he is confused and has no vision… Or is unable to articulate it.

    The fact is, he CAN’T articulate it, otherwise he would be tossed out, with poll numbers far worse than they are already.

    “I believe in Marxism” is not going to sell here.

    In the end, he is not the right man for the job… with a vision that requires him to hide it and mislead the American people at every turn.

    He attacks capitalism, yet depends on Wallstreet for campaign donations, and needs the power of capitalism to lift the economy.

    He is lost, at odds with himself.

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