Barack Obama’s presidential victory was an exciting moment for Canadians as well as Americans; we too thrilled in the prospect of a new era in American politics. Half a year on, that excitement is wearing off. The recent evidence from Washington appears contrary to our best interests. Should we be changing our minds on Obama?
The decentralized nature of American politics means Obama can’t be blamed for everything the U.S. government does, but he bears responsibility for broad directions and wields significant powers of persuasion. How he uses these powers (or doesn’t) is significant. Take trade relations.
Obama campaigned as a protectionist and promised to rewrite NAFTA. Since his election, he has recanted somewhat and, to his credit, removed “Buy American” provisions from federal projects funded by his massive stimulus bill. Yet he has also stood aside as various state and local stimulus provisions have shut out Canadian bidders and erected de facto trade walls. This in turn has given rise to an equivalent “buy Canadian” movement here at home. Canadian federal and provincial politicians have put considerable effort into trying to stop this protectionist train wreck; Obama has done nothing.
On the environment, the proposed U.S. climate change legislation, Waxman-Markey, constitutes a major threat to Alberta’s massive oil sands, one of the key drivers of the Canadian economy, and ignores our efforts to improve it. The bill also threatens our ability to participate meaningfully in broader North American climate change policy.
Many Canadian provinces are participating in regional climate plans alongside U.S. states, designing a cross-border regional carbon trading plan. Yet such international co-operation could be nixed as Waxman-Markey proposes to pre-empt regional approaches in favour of a Washington-imposed solution. We will thus lose a say in the process.
There’s also the prospect that the environment and trade files will come together in a perfect storm for Canada. As-yet-undefined pollution permit rules under Waxman-Markey could be used to shelter American firms from imports under the guise of environmental regulation by U.S. protectionists during Obama’s watch.
Last year Maclean’s warned readers that they might view former U.S. president George W. Bush in a different light once he left. While Canadians generally had a low opinion of his tenure, Bush was in fact a strong and committed supporter of many causes dear to our national interest, including trade, open borders and energy. “We’ll miss him when he’s gone,” we wrote. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.