Those of you with good political memories might recall a time when President Obama was a strongman hell-bent on subverting democracy. A dictator. Well, that was way back in February. Now, Obama's critics point out that he is an untough wimp who, in the evocative words of Sarah Palin, "wears mom jeans."
Palin — who by definition also wears mom jeans — made the comments on Sean Hannity's Fox News program on Monday night. "People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil," she said as Politico reports. "They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates." This is the fashion-centric version of the great "toughness" debate which emerged in the wake of the crisis in Crimea. Multiple outlets and pundits criticized Obama for failing to be tough before and / or after Russia started moving military units into the contested region of Ukraine. Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers said Putin was "running circles" around Obama, probably because he is more mobile given that he's not wearing high-waisted jeans or a shirt.
At The Washington Post, Dana Milbank does a nice job exploring the distinction between Obama-the-Domestic-Ruler-with-an-Iron-Fist and Obama-the-International-Laughingstock. For example: "A month ago, the Heritage Foundation president, former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), called Obama a 'playground bully' and an 'imperial president.' Now DeMint accuses him of making 'weak statements' that will 'only invite aggression.'" And so on.
There are three possibilities: One, Obama is Two-Face. Two, Obama is weak but his domestic opponents are weaker. Three, Obama is a dictator in the U.S. but lacks strength in international politics.
Not like that George W. Bush! On Morning Joe on Tuesday morning, Joe Scarborough picked up the "toughness" thread, as Mediaite reports. Scarborough makes the standard case: Obama was weak on Syria, and Putin figures he can get away with moving into Crimea. "Would Putin have made this move, say, in 2004, 2005 with George W. Bush president? … Would he have believed that he could have moved with impunity then?" One of Scarborough's guests, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, pointed out that, in fact, Putin did make a move under Bush, launching an assault against Georgia in 2008, well before anything that happened in Syria.
Putin made reference to Bush's international strength in an interview that aired Tuesday morning. As translated by BuzzFeed's Max Seddon, who is reporting from the region:
Putin on West: they follow own interests, say "if you're not with us, you're against us" then "drag the whole rest of the world with them"— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 4, 2014
The "they" to whom Seddon refers is the United States. And it wasn't Obama that made the "if you're not with us, you're against us" declaration — it was Bush, making the case in 2001 that the world should unite with the country in the War on Terrorism. Later, that dichotomy became a shorthand for Bush's (essentially) unilateral action against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
(Bush is also the man who in June of 2001 told National Journal's Ron Fournier that he'd looked Putin in the eye and "found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy." At the time, this was considered naive and suggestive of a lack of seriousness.)
The short version of this debate is as follows: People who oppose Barack Obama (or George Bush or Sarah Palin or Vladimir Putin) will highlight things they see as flaws whether or not the critiques are logically consistent. The long version of this debate is as follows: International diplomacy is complex and driven by inscrutable personalities that often operate in both obvious and tacit conflict.
Also: We should all be hesitant to mock the fashion choices of others.