Whenever President Vladimir Putin of Russia is in the media due to his regular land-grabbing actions, the right-wing media in America take the opportunity to contrast certain aspects of his personality with President Barack Obama in an attempt to undermine Obama. They quote such polls as the one published by YouGov in March in which 30% of Americans described Obama as bold, while 39% described Putin the same way. The difference was much more marked amongst self-identified conservatives, 48% of whom think Putin bold but only 24% of them see Obama the same way. There are multiple memes doing the rounds of Twitter on the subject.
This inevitably leads to comparisons in the Putin/Obama relationship to that between Republican hero President Reagan and his contemporary in Russia, President Mikhail Gorbachev. Particularly, they cite how Reagan “told” Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall, and, supposedly due to the strength of Reagan’s personality, Gorbachev did just that. The commentary from people like Fox News contributor Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters then goes something like, “If only Obama was more like Reagan, Putin wouldn’t be a problem”. (View a Lt. Col. Peters’ comment on Obama vs Putin.)
This comparison between Obama and Putin now and Reagan and Gorbachev more than a quarter century ago is completely bogus. When Ronald Reagan made his famous “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech on 12 June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in the days before the technology that makes almost every word a president utters fully available, very few Germans even heard the speech and few news outlets considered the words newsworthy.
It took until 9 November 1989 (almost 2½ years later) before the Gate opened, and a few more weeks until deconstruction of the Berlin Wall started. The contribution President Reagan’s words made to that happening is not considered historically significant by most historians. However, the GOP and their supporters in the media are constantly quoting it as an example of how they think President Obama should be dealing with Vladimir Putin.
This is simply wrong. President Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia was committed to the policies of Glasnost and perestroika, and was making his country into the most open and democratic state it had ever been. It can even be argued that if Reagan’s speech had been widely reported at the time, its war-mongering qualities would have made Gorbachev’s efforts more difficult as it would have lost him some support within Russia.
President Putin’s domestic policies have been to progressively reverse many of the advances towards openness and democracy made by Gorbachev. His opponents find themselves imprisoned on trumped-up charges, social dissent such as that practised by Pussy Riot is met by open state violence before prison sentences of outrageous length are imposed, regressive legislation such as the new anti-gay laws have been introduced, and the media is more controlled than ever. Putin is quite open about the fact that he rues the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is committed to a return to what he sees as Russian greatness.
So let’s just imagine what would have happened in 1987 if Barack Obama was the US president and Vladimir Putin was the Russian president. I’ll tell you what would have happened; Putin would have strengthened the wall just to spite Obama, and in addition he would have massed troops on the West German border while asking for an apology for Obama disrespecting him by referring to him as “Mr” instead of “President”. Presidents Gorbachev and Putin have completely different agendas, are completely different men and to try and contrast them is facile.
So let’s just recognise the “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” sound-bite for what it is: another opportunity for Republican politicians to be heard saying Reagan’s name ahead of the mid-term elections. The historical comparisons to attempt to display President Obama in a bad light are completely invalid.
A far more valid statistic than whether people see a president as “bold” is the Pew Research Center poll in 44 countries that asked people which leader they had confidence in to do the right thing when it came to world affairs: 56% chose Obama, only 23% chose Putin. I know who I’d rather have leading the free world, and it’s not Reagan.