In recent months, as U.S. President Barack Obama struggled to enact his legislative agenda and his party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, commentators have seized on any number of historical metaphors. Although comparisons of Obama to former U.S. Presidents Truman, Carter, Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton all have their merits, one intriguing parallel has been overlooked -- that between Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. Two areas of similarity are particularly noteworthy: the first is related to Obama's and Gorbachev's political instincts, strengths, and perils; the second has to do with the problem of Afghanistan and foreign policy more generally.
Both Obama and Gorbachev came to power because there was a broad domestic consensus for change, and their initial appeal was based in part on their ability to attract support across the political spectrum. In Gorbachev's case, this meant everyone from "conservative" reformers, who favored limited economic reforms but not political liberalization, to the most liberal and Western-minded members of the Communist Party and Soviet government. Similarly, Obama was able to appeal to "independent" voters and pundits who favored smaller, self-contained reforms, as well as to progressives who had a more sweeping agenda.
Gorbachev, much like Obama, was conciliatory by nature and tried to find a middle path whenever possible. Whether dealing with the economy, foreign policy, or political control, he tried to build consensus instead of pushing through the ideas of his more liberal supporters. Obama's approach to the stimulus package and health care reform echoed Gorbachev's: rather than advancing one program, he sought out compromises that would attract at least part of the Republican Party.
For a time, Gorbachev was able to retain more conservative people -- keeping on board, for example, old-guard communists such as Yegor Ligachev and the KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. As long as Gorbachev could convince them that he essentially shared their basic goals, Gorbachev was assured support from their organizations and the party's rank and file. But Gorbachev's search for a middle
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