Obama and Harper: Mutual frustration society

Harper and Obama have a lot in common. Which is part of the problem.

Paul Chiasson/CP

Paul Chiasson/CP

Edward Greenspon celebrates his arrival at Bloomberg by acting as foreman for a thoroughly team-reported exposé on the Harper-Obama dance marathon over Keystone XL. Apparently Obama surprised Harper with his first decision to punt a decision on approving the pipeline project. Apparently Harper responded by publicly needling the President of the United States. Apparently that didn’t produce optimum results. It’s compelling reading, without being all that surprising. Who still thinks these two guys get along?

And yet as relatively recently as January 2011, when we had one of our CPAC Coyne/Wells town-hall things in Washington, D.C., I was a bit of an odd man out for suggesting there was something wrong in Canada-U.S. relations and that it started at the top. Brother Coyne seemed amazed that I could be so pessimistic. Here’s a relic from those days.

Then several months later Obama punted on KXL and the rest is history, or would be if the damned saga would ever end. One amusing part of the reaction to today’s Bloomberg thumper is that much of the reaction — in the online comments and on Twitter — is from readers who see the story as evidence that so-and-so is a lousy leader. Except they can’t agree on the identity of so-and-so. Obama’s a ditherer! Harper’s a passive-aggressive taunter!

Wait, you’re both right. I read the Bloomberg report with mounting relief because it matches the account in my recent book, although in much greater detail. To me, Harper and Obama got off on a very bad foot and have never recovered. Never bothered to try to recover, really.

When Obama made his first foreign trip, to Ottawa early in 2009, the Harper PMO had high hopes the two men would get on: they diverged on politics, of course, but they were of similar age, they had young families and both had affected an outsider stance toward political culture in their national capitals. But Obama was busy with a domestic economic collapse, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health care reform. There could be no enhanced Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship unless Harper had some joint project to propose. (This is always the way it goes: Ottawa tugs at Washington’s sleeve or winds up ignored.) And he had none. Obama quickly shunted Canada from Low Priority to Very Low Priority. Everything since has flowed from that awkward beginning.

What’s striking about these two is how similar they are. Neither is a hugger. Where Mulroney and Clinton and Nixon and Chrétien, each in very different ways, had strong bonds of friendship with a few foreign leaders, Harper and Obama don’t. Neither was very curious about the world before reaching positions of national leadership. Neither is fond of foreign travel.

Each man’s political roots are showing. Harper’s conservative base consists largely of people who get their U.S. political information from Fox News. The message you get from Fox News is that Barack Obama is not even a legitimately elected president. The Prime Minister is very good at writing people off, and he plainly wrote Obama off as a serious interlocutor long ago. That’s the only way to explain how he could seriously think calling KXL “a no-brainer” in a public appearance could actually substitute for a real plan to change Obama’s mind.

As for Obama, he rarely hears about Keystone in Washington except from the Republican leadership, which has been trying to destroy him for five years. Every time they read out those loony-bin lists of demands during the government shutdown — “Abolish the income tax! Repeal Obamacare! And get cracking on Keystone!” — I flinched a little, knowing Obama was watching on TV, muttering “Never. Never. Never.”

The Canada-U.S. relationship, of course, encompasses vastly more than tension between heads of government over a pipeline approval. Most of the relationship is healthy. But as for the much smaller subset of issues that require the two heads of government to agree, it’s unrealistic to expect the relationship will improve before one of the players changes. Maybe both.



Obama and Harper: Mutual frustration society

  1. The comment has been removed.

    • Q.E.D.

      • At least Wherry lets criticism stand.

        • I haven’t the faintest idea what happened to your comment.

    • I think you’ve missed the broader point. There’s mutual loathing between Obama/Democrats and the Republicans. When the GOP mentions Keystone, Obama instinctively hardens his stance against it.

      Paul’s article wasn’t so much a critique of the GOP and their views, but of how Obama is naturally inclined to refuse Keystone simply because the GOP is for it.

      • And that’s the GOP’s problem? What should they do? Just shut up so that Obama might accidentally endorse something they approve of?

  2. A soon-to-be completed Keystone XL pipeline providing oil and/or American refined products to Europe would be extremely useful in the current Ukrainian crisis.

    Alas. The oil is trapped in Alberta for another decade.

    Putin wins because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Checkmate.

    P.S. Obama has exported ever increasing record amounts of thermal coal to the rest of the world pretty much every year of his two terms. Obama allows uncontrolled natural gas flaring in the Bakken oil fields of the Dakotas.

  3. “Each man’s political roots are showing. Harper’s conservative base consists largely of people who get their U.S. political information from Fox News. The message you get from Fox News is that Barack Obama is not even a legitimately elected president.”

    This line was frustrating to read and is IMO beneath Wells’ usual standards. You would expect to read this on HuffPo or Slate, not Macleans.

    — Signed, guy in the conservative base

    • hmm, well, I agree there’s a level of, I forget the term, painting everyone with the same brush, here, but at the same time, the degree to which this government has strayed from conservative principles, I would hope that the remaining base is indeed mostly comprised of people who don’t actually think critically, and simply think the other guys must be worse.

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