Obama vs. Putin: The PR War

Photograph by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement about the situation in Ukraine in the White House briefing room in Washington on March 17, 2014.

Updated at 1:13 pm EDT

In the clash over Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea, two presidents are engaged in their own public relations war.

This doesn’t look like a man who’s worried about U.S. sanctions:

Back in the U.S.A., Republican critics of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Ukraine conflict — as well as the way he played the “red line” card in Syria — are seizing on accounts suggesting that the Obama administration’s sanctions are feckless in the face of a determined adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The narrative that Republicans are spinning, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has noted, is of Obama, “the feckless tyrant.”

Of course, the president has the benefit of having much of the Western world on his side, including that NATO alliance formed with a pledge that aggression against any member is an aggression against all. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia “will not get away” with the annexation of Crimea.

The White House has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Poland and Lithuania to assuage the concerns of Russian-bordering states as Putin claims a peninsula. Biden, announcing that Russia faces “more than just sanctions,” told reporters in Warsaw today that the U.S. is considering rotating U.S. forces to the Baltics as part of expanded training exercises.

The idea that politics stops at water’s edge in matters of international conflict seems to have been shelved. One won’t find a lot on the White House twitter accounts about any of this. It’s been a while since communications czar Dan Pfeiffer challenged Obama’s critics for tracing current problems overseas to the fatal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Pfeiffer also wondered, by the numbers, how the tide of Republican criticism for the president measures against the president’s own criticism for Putin:

At this stage, the Republicans say, Putin is winning more than a PR war.

A lot of the White House’s social media of late has been devoted to promoting the Affordable Care Act, the political relations war on the home front. The impression left by all of this is of a White House undaunted by the commentaries of McCain, Graham and company. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they’re still digging out of a snow storm.

— Margaret Talev reported from Warsaw.

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