That played to Donald Trump's advantage over the course of the primaries: Trump was fervent in his willingness to disparage the current president at every opportunity, crossing lines that other Republican candidates wouldn't. (It didn't begin this year, of course; his adamant questioning of whether Obama was born in the United States was what really launched his political career in 2011.)
At the same time, Trump has embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin, in part because Putin serves as a foil to Obama and in part, it seems, because Trump embraces Putin's more autocratic leadership style. (A year ago, for example, Trump waved away Putin's apparent role in the killings of journalists critical of his presidency.)
Putin's praise of Trump personally and his country's apparent hacking of the Democratic National Committee in order to sway the presidential election in Trump's direction seem to have helped to solidify Trump's attitudes toward the Russian leader. It's been a fascinating departure from decades of tension between the United States and Russia — and between Russia and leaders in Trump's own party.
After the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia this week in response to the hacking, Trump waved the issue away, saying that it was time to “move on to bigger and better things.”
When Putin then declined to retaliate against the United States for the sanctions, Trump offered his thoughts on Twitter.
It should go without saying that this is a remarkable statement. The president-elect of the United States, a person who has insulted hundreds of people and organizations on Twitter, chooses to praise the leader of a foreign adversarial state — in part because that leader is sticking it to Obama.
What's more, Trump apparently wanted to ensure that the world knew how forcefully he believed in his praise of Putin, pinning the tweet to the top of his timeline so that anyone visiting his Twitter page would see it (though he later unpinned it) and even sending out the same verbiage over Instagram.
Russia, understandably, was quite pleased with the tweet, and its embassy in the United States retweeted it. International diplomacy in 2016.
As our Aaron Blake noted earlier, Trump's position on Russia and Putin has put him at odds with much of the rest of his party, forcing them to try to find a path between opposition to a hostile foreign nation and support of their party's leader. Part of that divide stems from the fact that Putin is now viewed much more favorably by Republicans than he used to be, according to data from YouGov polling.
After Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, there was a brief surge in comparisons between Obama and Putin. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — both of whom eventually endorsed Trump with enthusiasm — praised Putin's strength in relation to Obama. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Palin said on Fox in 2014. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
The fact that Putin stands as a leader in opposition to Obama makes it easier for Republicans to embrace him. Even the Heritage Foundation, which rose to prominence during the Cold War administration of Ronald Reagan, tweeted a comparison that framed Putin favorably in contrast to Obama.
Trump's praise of Putin on Friday was typically over the top but still deeply atypical for an American politician — much less a president-elect. Part of this is personal to Trump, certainly. But part of it, too, is that American politics is so partisan that even someone who clearly hopes to see America's power and influence wane can earn kudos for opposing a Democratic American president.