Kroft: You said a year ago that the United States -- America leads. We're the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership. Obama: In what way? Let-- let's think about this-- let-- let-- Kroft: Well, he's moved troops into Syria, for one. He's got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II, bombing the people that we are supporting. Obama: So that's leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine-- Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership-- Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership.
Republicans deserve quite a bit of credit for creating political conditions in which the establishment internalizes GOP talking points. The party -- through a combination of repetition, marketing, and effective messaging -- has managed to convince a wide variety of observers to witness current events through a Republican lens. Putting merits aside, it's an impressive display of public-relations acuity.
The dynamic is hard to shake. Whenever President Obama does much of anything, the political establishment's questions are shaped in large part by how Republicans are likely to perceive current events.
Take, for example, President Obama's latest interview with CBS's Steve Kroft, which aired on "60 Minutes" last night. The correspondent pressed the president on developments in Syria -- Kroft even complained at one point that Obama was going into too much detail with lengthy answers -- and even offered tacit support for the Republican view that Russia's Vladimir Putin is leading effectively. From the CBS transcript:
And watching the exchange unfold, it became clear that they do, in fact, have different definitions of leadership.
Kroft gave voice to the Republican view that Putin is "leading." We know the Russian autocrat is "leading," the argument goes, because he's deploying troops and "conducting military operations." And isn't that what "leaders" do?
It immediately brought to mind House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) complaining in March, “The world is starving for American leadership, but America has an anti-war president." The message wasn't subtle: to "lead" is to wage war.
Vox's Max Fisher added today that Putin has "managed to get his country isolated, sanctioned, and mired in two foreign wars. He has no apparent exit strategy and no obvious long-term plan. Both at home and abroad, he is weaker than ever."
Kroft pushed back against the president's case, insisting, "My point was not that [Putin] was leading, my point is that he was challenging your leadership." But as Fisher added, "[I]t is pretty odd to suggest that American leadership is somehow imperiled because Putin is sinking ever more resources into a costly and doomed mission, or that just because Putin is now flailing around in Syria he is a brave and brilliant chess master."
Later in the same "60 Minutes" interview, Kroft said, "They say you're projecting a weakness." When the president questioned the repeated use of the word "they," Kroft got specific, citing Saudis, Israelis, and "everybody in the Republican Party."
I'm a little surprised Obama didn't just didn't start laughing on the spot.
The president did respond, "If you're citing the Republican Party, I think it's fair to say that there is nothing I've done right over the last seven and a half years. And I think that's right. I also think what is true is that these are the same folks who were making an argument for us to go into Iraq and who, in some cases, still have difficulty acknowledging that it was a mistake. And Steve, I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and-- that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they'll suggest we're in retreat."