The speeches presented by Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to their respective legislatives bodies are a study not only in personal political preferences but also in national political traditions.
President Barack Obama greets people after speaking at the University of Kansas Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in Lawrence, Kansas. Obama was speaking about the themes in his State of the Union address. Photo: AP
On Tuesday, Jan. 21, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress, about six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin did the same. Even a cursory glance at these two examples of political rhetoric reveals significant semantic and stylistic differences in the approaches adopted by the two leaders in terms of both public speaking and expressing their political ideas.
Everything Obama said was formulated in a way that was precise and actionable. Some examples: “pass a law to increase the minimum wage,” “provide free community college tuition,” “close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Putin, for his part, is far more prone to philosophical generalizations and expansive political formulas that require further reflection and private managerial decisions. His speech included a declaration on the sacred value of Crimea, the need to “lift restrictions on business” and “eliminate Russia’s critical dependence on foreign technologies.”
A more thorough analysis of the addresses exposes some profound differences in the way the leaders who currently sit in the Kremlin and the White House understand the essence of politics and the functioning of state institutions. There is no doubt that these differences are rooted in the ideological and philosophical discrepancies that divide Russian and American political traditions.
It is ironic that the Russian president is compelled to deliver a regular address to legislators in a practice essentially borrowed from the U.S. political experience. The current Russian constitution was adopted in 1993 during a honeymoon period in U.S.-Russian relations, and many of its provisions — from the title of the head of state to the presidential obligation to report to the Federal Assembly — are a carbon-copy of American prototypes.
In the Russian-Soviet political tradition the head of state did of course deliver periodic addresses to the nation, but they were of a far more prescriptive nature than the American State of the Union address. The speeches of Russian tsars or Soviet general secretaries were perceived not as a set of good intentions, but as a guide to action that was not subject to further discussion (except for the private methods used to achieve the objectives set by the leader).
From a formal point of view, today’s addresses by the Russian president to the Federal Assembly adopt the American template: the president sets out a certain agenda that he would like to see embodied in a series of laws. However, every year Vladimir Putin departs further from these rules. His speeches touch far less upon legislative initiatives than on governmental tasks and economic targets to be achieved by a certain date. Thus, Putin is restoring the antiquated Russian political culture of autocracy and the principle of individual control and absolute dominance by the head of state in domestic and foreign policy.
It is quite symbolic that, in contrast to the State of the Union, the Russian president’s message is delivered not within the walls of either of the buildings that houses the Federal Assembly, but in the St. George Hall of the Kremlin, the president’s residence. This is a clear sign of who’s in charge.
Despite the presence of members of opposition parties, it has become quite inconceivable of late for one part of the audience to clap while the other pointedly expresses its disapproval, as is common during the State of the Union address. Rather, the St. George Hall reverberates to the sound of unanimous applause and delight, thus demonstrating unity and support for the president’s chosen policies and positions.
The de facto enforceability of the Russian president’s goals outlined in his address to the Federal Assembly makes him, at first glance, a much more influential figure in his country’s system of governance than the U.S. president, who can only hope for a favorable outcome in the struggle against political opponents and the implementation of at least some of his proposed initiatives. But Russian realpolitik negates Putin’s advantage, since in many cases the president’s instructions are drowned in the vortex of bureaucracy. The net result is that, despite the inevitable clash with the Republicans in Congress, the U.S. president’s proposals have a far greater chance of seeing the light of day.
In terms of content, Putin and Obama’s latest offerings differed not only as a result of the disparity in political traditions, but also the polar opposite states of the Russian and American economies. Obama spoke as the leader of a country that has overcome many years of economic decline and now stands on the threshold of a new upturn. Putin was forced to devote half his message to detailing a long list of anti-crisis measures – the leader of a country whose economy is expected to shrink by 5 percent this year.
The laws of rhetoric dictate that a speech must start with the positive, but the only positive developments Vladimir Putin could find in 2014 pertained to Russian foreign policy: the commencement of an ambitious strategy for countering the international influence of the U.S., the annexation of Crimea and his unprecedented domestic approval ratings. Thus, the first section of Putin’s message in December was less a political statement than another wordy denunciation of the West in the spirit of his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.
Obama, in contrast, began with a long and detailed analysis of the economy, restricting the foreign policy component of his remarks to a sapless recapitulation of his not very numerous achievements. His view on the results of U.S. interaction with Moscow was encapsulated in one biting phrase about the failure of Putin’s strategy and Russia’s economy being left "in tatters.”
The two addresses confirmed a well-known fact: confrontation with the United States occupies such a huge place in the thinking of Russian leaders past and present that it has long become a national raison d'être. But for some reason, few in Russia notice the contradiction: If Russia is a great power, why does it need to assert its sovereignty so persistently in the face of the U.S? The word “sovereignty” appeared seven times in Putin’s speech.
In the speeches of U.S. politicians Russia tends to feature only sporadically, often as some annoying hindrance thwarting the realization of America’s national interests. In the 2015 State of the Union, Obama said nothing about his foreign policy plans in respect of Russia, allowing no possibility of a new reset. Meanwhile, Putin deliberately emphasized that under no circumstances would Russia scale back ties with the West.
It should be recognized that Obama’s speech this year appeared more successful in terms of form and content. As for Putin, he was clearly constrained by the format dictated by the constitution and American tradition, while the style of his address was quite eclectic, lacking specificity by American standards, but at the same time full of the kind of minutiae that would have been unthinkable coming from the lips of Russian tsars or Soviet general secretaries. In the field of political rhetoric, as in other areas, Putin seeks to go beyond the “American hegemony” and create his own stylistic canon.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.