2 Different Sources of Pride

A colleague from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Professor Scott Gehlbach, said to me the other day, "U.S. voters support Barack Obama for the same reason Russians supported President Vladimir Putin -- they want to feel proud of their country again."

This is quite amusing. The unpopularity of the current U.S. president has truly made the role of opposition leader look attractive, and the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination, though expectedly heated, promises to be unexpectedly protracted. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emerged as the strongest contenders following the primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, but neither has yet taken a clear lead.

There are very many differences between U.S. and Russian presidential campaigns. With individual political contributions in the United States capped at the absurdly low, by Russian standards, sum of $2,300 per person, both candidates have had to intensify fundraising efforts to finance the blitz of television advertisements they will be broadcasting in the 22 states holding primaries Tuesday. In addition to television appearances, candidates have been speaking to seven or eight different groups every day in a heated race to the finish. Though the Russian presidential elections are scheduled for March 2, the leading presidential candidate, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, does not have to work so hard. Moreover, he hasn't even spelled out his political program.

The situation within the Republican Party is even more complex, but Senator John McCain will likely win the nomination. The fact that McCain lost the same contest to President George W. Bush eight years ago is one more indication that U.S. voters want a fundamental change in leadership, and they very much want to take pride in their country once again.

Obama has been addressing the same issues in his speeches and public appearances -- how to lower the cost of medical insurance, how to help those homeowners who cannot make their mortgage payments as a result of the subprime banking crisis and how to pull U.S. troops quickly out of Iraq without causing chaos in the region. Obama's proposed solutions to these problems are not as detailed as Clinton's, whose main advantage is her in-depth knowledge of many pressing issues. She demonstrates this skill on a daily basis in her televised meetings with voters. Obama's strength is his ability to involve tens of thousands of voters in the political process who previously took little or no interest in it at all.

Almost fifty years ago, another candidate who also defined his platform in vague but lofty terms and whose photograph graced the covers of many magazines, became president of the United States. Although John F. Kennedy failed to push a single major piece of legislation through Congress during his nearly three years in office, millions of Americans consider him to be one of the country's greatest presidents. Through his words and personality, Kennedy embodied the new hopes and dreams of an entire generation.

A Russian reader of this column, which is being published during the final stretch of the Russian presidential campaign, might wonder why I would write about another country's election. But think again. The assertion from my American colleague that U.S. voters are supporting Obama for the same reason Russians like Putin is both right and wrong at the same time. Why? The answer is simple: Obama promises a future that Americans can be proud of, while Putin has brought Russians back to their glorious past.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.