The American presidential elections receive excellent coverage in the Russian media. While Russian journalists rarely offer commentary about the U.S. candidates, straight news reporting of the American presidential campaign is done in exhaustive, overwhelming detail. Not to be outdone, Russia Blog just completed its own humble, non-scientific poll. The goal? Determine which U.S. presidential candidate Russians prefer as the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
After presenting the question to nearly 50 Russians, the answer is clear: one hundred percent of our not-so-random sampling said Senator Barack Obama is their first choice. Huh? Up is down and down is up, at least if you believe conventional wisdom. Why would the Russians, stereotypically considered to be a racist and conservative nation, pick Senator Obama--the first viable black U.S. presidential candidate, and the one who many Americans agree breaks the traditional U.S. presidential mold on many levels?
Star power - a recent cover of Time magazine featuring Senator Obama
The reasons are varied. Some of Russia Blog's Russian friends have had great experiences in the U.S., and they genuinely believe that the first-term junior senator from Illinois is a leader who is capable of bringing positive change to America. They like Mr. Obama's goal of withdrawing the troops from Iraq and agree with his health care and education policies. Other Russians are more concerned about Russia, and don't like the anti-Putin rhetoric of Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton. (It is important to remember that Vladimir Putin still enjoys nearly 80 percent approval rating, and most Russians view themselves as enjoying more freedom and wealth today than ever before in their country's thousand-year history.) John McCain's "I looked into his eyes, and I saw K-G-B," or Hillary Clinton's "Putin has no soul" aren't helpful and don't play well with Russians who think seriously about the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Mr. Obama is popular for other reasons that have nothing to do with avoiding (purposely or not) negative rhetoric about Russia. He is young, and modern Russia likes young politicians. The most popular Russian presidential candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, is only 42 years old. Mr. Medvedev is also the most liberal of all the popular candidates and is associated with change--not with the former intelligence service and military associates of Vladimir Putin.
Follow the money. Russians have been keeping their savings in U.S. currency for over a decade. When the Euro became stronger than the dollar some Russian families switched to either the European currency or the Russian ruble. However, there still are many families that would like to see the return of the strong dollar. Some Russians believe that America's aggressive foreign policy, negative image abroad, and high military spending contributed to the weakening of the dollar. Whether there is a defensible correlation or not, even if Mr. Obama spends more federal budget money on healthcare and education, the Russians in our informal poll hope that withdrawal from Iraq and increased "friendliness" of the United States abroad will help to strengthen the U.S. currency.
Finally, don't underestimate the Russian love of image. They admire good public speakers. They embrace humor. President Putin has been funny and straightforward (as his "needs a head" quote about Hillary Clinton showed last week). It's fair to say that America and the world have not seen a young American president who was a talented speaker since President John Kennedy's presidency. Mr. Obama is definitely a talented orator. He looks sharp, he dresses sharp, and he works hard. All of the above might have nothing to do with the performance of a future president, but how many voters really read policy reports and papers? Not that many. Russians are known for putting a strong emphasis on style and looks. Bill Clinton might have not been good for Russia's foreign policy (particularly in Kosovo), but many Russians liked him.
Senator Barack Obama is an African-American and he is a liberal. From the surface and at a policy-level, he is everything Russians stereotypically shouldn't like. But the Russians in our poll love him. America's chattering classes are calling 2008 one of the strangest and most unpredictable U.S. presidential elections in recent memory. And Russians--surprisingly astute observers of the American political scene--are proving that when it comes to reading the political tea leaves, some of those old stereotypes might be as unreliable as they are unnecessary.