Why Putin Has Got the Moves Obama Lacks

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/25/2014 12:30:00 AM
But would you buy a used car from this guy?
I watched the entire Putin interview yesterday on CNBC from his World Economic Forum wannabe, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. This time, the British host Geoff Cutmore did not toss softballs at Putin but asked quite pointed questions about the effects of sanctions on Russia, Russian relations with Ukraine, Putin's seeming hankering for the return of the USSR, and his overall worldview. Dare I say it but Putin was in his element: smiling, smirking and sulking where appropriate as he delivered an astonishing range of one-liners, polemics and put-downs. Definitely, he's got a future on the lecture circuit--or as an inspirational speaker--when he finally retires from politics circa 100 years of age. Mentally and physically, he's at the top of his game.

Today on Yahoo! News, I read the ABC News writeup of the very same event. The summary makes a comparison between Putin and Obama that I found amusing. In terms of sheer machismo, there is of course no contest: Putin is a judo black belt while Obama is a pencil-necked geek (Barack is a lawyer, after all). More to the point, both are economical with the truth and slant it in ways that flatter them.
However, there is a large difference in panache that bears discussing. True Believers in America--you can drink that Kool-Aid elsewhere--are as hip as John Denver and have as accurate a worldview as Dick Cheney. However, slagging America is not enough to make someone stylish since everyone does it (including Americans). You could be a portly weirdo like Kim Jong Un, or a half-wit like Nicolas Maduro for that matter. What Putin does have is moxie--and lots of it.

My favorite moment was when the subject turned to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Like me, Putin probably thinks Snowden is a conniving computer geek prone to abusing his welcome. However, since granting the ingrate Snowden asylum in August of last year, Putin's been setting things up for his rhetorical grand slam, and he duly knocked one out of the park yesterday. Turning around human rights happy talk Yanquis are so fond of, Putin stated Russia hasn't handed Edward Snowden back to the US since it doesn't give up fighters for human rights. I was laffing so hard it hurt. The timing and delivery of Putin's exquisite punch line made putting up with the whiny American traitor Snowden worthwhile.

OTOH, Obama is quite simply a fraud. He has brought his people little hope or change. Overpromise and underdeliver. When Putin speaks he probably thinks to himself: "Tee-hee, I got the delivery of that whopper just right!" It's campy nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff. Sly and ironic, I tip my hat off to Putin's brand of melodrama. Obama, meanwhile, likely thinks: "If I lie hard enough, they'll believe me...and in America." He's rather po-faced. The latter is duty-bound to Believe In America despite all the apparent contradictions of American exceptionalism. He is of the repeat-a-lie-enough-times-and-people-will-believe-it's-the-truth (including himself) persuasion. Can you really blame Putin for chafing at the paternalism of this Uncle Sam Knows What's Best BS? And of course he has the advantage of not having to live up to citing his country a shining exemplar for the world in the post-Soviet era. 

Besides, Putin probably does not respect those who buy all his rhetorical flourishes and probably rates those who do as suckers. Instead, the discerning will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and find occasional nuggets of wisdom. Putin offers that the US-led world order has failed, fine by me, but I am unsure whether Putin offers a compelling alternative (or China for that matter). Still, I am not one to doubt that the Yanquis are in large part responsible for the subprime globalization we have been made to endure. Putin also got it spot on in saying the dollar is something we should all move away from since it's bound to only decrease in value in the long run as we are played for suckers.  

In song terms, Obamanite rhetoric has the sophistication of Brooks and Dunn:

Only in America
Dreaming in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance

Obama is just like that: dull. trite and hollow. Nevermind that income mobility in the United States is much worse than in many European countries where inequality is lower despite not justifying such unfairness in the name of "rewarding" effort. American hypocrisy knows no bounds. Meanwhile, Putin rhetoric reminds me of The Clash:

Yankee detectives
Are always on the TV
'Cos killers in America
Work seven days a week
I'm so bored with the USA
But what can I do?

Recent drive-by shootings in SoCal, typically senseless American behavior of shooting people at random, remind me of the barbarity of American society hinted at by the late Joe Strummer. They are exceedingly violent people and it literally shows. The question for the rest of the world and Putin is precisely what can we do? We certainly don't want to be like the USA, but I am not sure if we can be like Russia, not necessarily having either the natural resources or the neo-Stalinesque cult of personality to make Putinism work abroad. You certainly may not like him, but there is a drama about him that captivates others' imaginations.

Each of them is a reflection of the societies that produced them. As the saying goes, you get the government you deserve. Obama is a master self-promoter in a society that values self-promotion. Hence its lawyer- and financial speculator-infested culture that handsomely rewards socially unproductive activities. Meanwhile, Putin is stuck between romantic notions of restoring the Soviet Union to its former grandeur and attracting FDI in a neoliberal era--hence the CNBC interview to reassure prospective investors about Russia's political situation. I've pretty much written off the lame duck Obama, but Putin still has some way to go in proving whether he's simply another showboat--witness the wasteful Sochi Olympic Games--or has something more to give. Meanwhile, there is something to be said about enjoying his amusing feints and postures.

This much though I am certain of: Take away Obama's battery of image consultants, speechwriters and spin doctors and I really doubt whether there's any substance to him. Certainly he hasn't done anything for his country as median incomes slide even further post-Dubya and debt increases to previously unimaginable heights. So he's glib and superficial, but so is modern-day America.

5/26 UPDATE: I forgot to point out that there is academic research on Putin's cult of personality and star power that I find highly entertaining if some of the assertions made I am unsure of.