(Photo: Reuters/Grigory Dukor)
Russian President Vladimir Putin beat American President Barack Obama to the top of Forbes' list of the "Most Powerful People" in 2013, despite Obama having had taken the top spot every year except once since the list began in 2009.
"'Leading from behind' is a very appropriate phrase to say how President Obama handles foreign policy," Richard Benedetto, former White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today, and adjunct professional lecturer at American University's school of communication, told The Christian Post in an interview on Thursday. Benedetto explained that Obama allows other nations to lead because the American people care more about domestic issues.
But the Forbes list is "a reflection, not of domestic politics but of foreign policy politics and where the United States economy stands in the world," the scholar explained. The recent political snafus with the government shutdown and the failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act, also known as "ObamaCare," matter less for this list than the Snowden leaks and the debate over Syria.
"Americans today are far less interested in foreign policy than I've seen them be in recent memory," the professor noted. "The American public, by and large, is not focused on it at all unless a crisis occurs."
Since Americans do not value foreign policy, Obama's political strategy is solid, Benedetto asserted. "He knows that, politically, there's no mileage in foreign policy over the long term," the former journalist said. "He'd rather be talking about the economy or his healthcare plan or the immigration issue…rather than the foreign policy front."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is a foreign policy show-off, Benedetto argued. "Putin is a guy who likes to flex muscle," the scholar noted. Recent events have propelled the Russian President into a position to display his power, giving him Forbes' top spot.
"Putin looked like he was stronger than the president with the Snowden situation and the weapons in Syria," Benedetto explained. In both of those cases, "Obama allowed Putin to take the lead."
"Anyone watching this year's chess match over Syria and NSA leaks has a clear idea of the shifting individual power dynamics," wrote Forbes staffer Caroline Howard, presenting the report. Immediately she contrasted the Russian and American presidents: "Putin has solidified his control over Russia while Obama's lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president – latest example: the government shutdown mess."
"Right now he's on the top of his game," Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine, said of Putin. "Our President had to go on bended knee to bail him out of Syria, same thing with our President and the President of Iran, and here at home the botched introduction of his signature legislation, where he said he didn't know what was going on."
Forbes did admit, however, that "a big part of power is perception." The magazine's perception may not have the final say. "I think Forbes in its own way was trying to jab the President a little bit," Benedetto argued. He said the magazine is probably more conservative than Obama and perhaps only meant to indicate their displeasure of the current president's foreign policy.
As for Obama's weakness to Putin, Syria may not be the deciding factor. "In the case of Syria, Obama's step back satisfied the American people who didn't want to be involved in the first place," the American University professor explained. If Putin decides to flex his muscles in a part of the world Americans care deeply about, he may not find such an easy victory.