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.
The 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.
One 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.
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.