Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Friday in the Chicago Tribune.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shot a gray whale off Russia's eastern coast Wednesday - with a crossbow. Putin had joined a scientific expedition researching the species; his special arrow gathered a skin sample. That same day, President Obama bought shrimp at Nancy's Restaurant on Martha's Vineyard. We ask you: Which is cooler?
This isn't the first time Putin has gone out of his way to convince Russians - and the world - that he is as ultra-macho as leaders come. Earlier this month, he co-piloted a firefighting plane and extinguished two of the blazes that have plagued Russia's forests.
In July he was photographed riding a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson. You know, one of those well-oiled, quintessentially American machines. Putin, resplendent in black jeans, black shirt, sunglasses, biker gloves and Brando swagger, called Harleys "tricked out pieces of iron" and symbols of freedom.
In 2008, he is said to have fired a tranquilizer dart into an escaped tiger, temporarily downing the animal and saving a Russian TV crew and a group of scientists from potential harm. News accounts have Putin stroking the animal's cheek and murmuring, "She'll remember us." This April he affixed an electronic tracking collar to a tranquilized polar bear on an Arctic archipelago. After helping to lift, weigh and measure the creature, he reportedly shook its paw and counseled, "Be well."
These he-man moments may be staged, but they have impact on the public psyche. Consider:
Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have been taking hits in public opinion polls. That's probably inevitable given Russia's lagging economy and the government's poor response to the wildfire crisis. Still, as of June, Putin boasted a robust 74-percent approval rating, according to Gallup pollsters. No Kremlin insider has confided that Putin's exploits are part of a popularity ploy - but then, acknowledging as much would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?
A struggling economy and a drawn-out environmental crisis - sound familiar? Obama's approval numbers in Gallup polling now languish at 43 percent, the dreariest of his presidency. Critics smell blood in the water, and it isn't the whale's: "The longer he is president, the less presidential he has become," sniffed James W. Ceaser in The Weekly Standard.
Has swimming with dolphins and bare-chested fishing burnished Putin's image? Would wrestling a grizzly bear or skydiving into the Grand Canyon aid Obama's? Can it hurt him any more than visiting the Vineyard to eat seafood that someone else - maybe Putin himself - caught? There's one way to find out.
But no wind-surfing. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts can explain.