For nearly 10 minutes, it seemed as if U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech to Canada’s Parliament might not amount to much. As he eased into it, he relied on, for instance, the requisite hockey references, earning a big ovation by paying tribute to “Mr. Hockey,” Gordie Howe, who recently died. In a nice gesture to the Prime Minister, he chose a text from Justin Trudeau’s father, quoting Pierre Elliott Trudeau on how countries aren’t made the way pharaohs erected pyramids, but rather are “built every day out of certain basic shared values.”
But then his tone changed—Obama is a master of that moment of modulation—and his real theme suddenly came into focus. Put briefly: Brexit and Donald Trump. “We meet at a pivotal moment for our nations and for the globe,” Obama said. He then sketched an international order under a sort of strain between success and failure. “The world is more prosperous than ever before,” he said. “But alongside globalization and technological wonders, we also see a rise in inequality and wage stagnation across the advanced economies, leaving too many communities fearful of diminishing prospects, not just for themselves, but, more importantly, for their children.”
As if that problem isn’t grave enough in itself, Obama warned of how it’s ripe for exploitation. “If the benefits of globalization accrue only to those at the very top, if our democracies seem incapable of ensuring broad-based growth and opportunity, then people will push back, out of anger or out of fear,” he said. “And politicians—some sincere and some entirely cynical—will tap that anger and fear, harking back to bygone days of order and predictability and national glory, arguing that we must rebuild walls and disengage from a chaotic world, or rid ourselves of supposed ills brought on by immigrants, all in order to regain control of our lives.”
He pleaded for politicians to realize that if too many people see globalization as “inherently rigged” to benefit only the rich, they will turn to demagogues who promise a retreat from open trade and multilateral engagement. Trudeau was nodding, and with good reason. Back in 2014, as a rookie Liberal leader framing his party’s new platform, he gave a key speech in Montreal, warning how the middle class would stop supporting freer trade, and other liberal economic policies, unless they soon started getting their fair share of the wealth.
There was more from Obama, much more, than his plea for spreading prosperity and thus easing the anxiety that fuelled the Brexit vote and, although he didn’t utter his name, Trump’s astonishing rise. He touched on everything from countering climate change to combating terrorists, promoting equality for women to eradicating malaria and the Zika virus. But he kept circling back to the imperative to remain open and resist the temptation of turning inward. He talked up the shared immigrant success stories of the U.S. and Canada, and pointedly highlighted the need to engage with Muslim communities.
It was the performance that the assembled MPs, senators, invited dignitaries, and political insiders expected. After all, few political leaders in any period—certainly not this era, when digital fidgeting has sapped our capacity for listening—have made set-piece speeches matter the way Obama has. It started with his 2004 “Audacity of Hope” pitch to the Democratic National Convention. It deepened with his 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech on race in Philadelphia. He has risen to the occasion often since then.
The occasion today in Ottawa was a chance to respond to last week’s unsettling news from Britain, which feels so closely tied to the rise of Trump. And for several solid minutes, and then sporadically afterward, Obama was right on target. But the sheer variety and range of his speech sometimes dissipated its impact. If no passage fell flat, it was also unclear sometimes how one part linked to the last.
Still, this speech has to rank high among those delivered by the nearly 60 foreign heads of state and government who have addressed Canada’s Parliament over the decades. Even an orator of Obama’s calibre though, needn’t bother trying to set the standard: That distinction will always belong to Winston Churchill, for his 1941 call in the House for the democracies to redouble their resolve to fight Hitler.
Leaving Churchill’s unbeatable “some chicken, some neck” masterpiece aside, the competition is still stiff. Arguably the best in recent times were clustered in the 1990s, when the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of South African apartheid, and a strong updraft of North American prosperity made everything seem possible. Leaders who personified all of those themes dropped by Parliament Hill.
Nelson Mandela spoke in Ottawa twice, in 1990 and 1998, magisterial both times, but pragmatic, too. “The experience of all peoples has taught,” Mandela said as South Africa’s president in his second Ottawa speech, “that our democracy would remain secure and stable only if we could unite those who were once locked in conflict and if our new freedoms brought material improvement in the lives of our people.”
Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became president of the Czech Republic, sounded a little less grounded, but no less inspiring, in predicting a post-Cold War order in which nations would come to matter less. “The idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve in a world that connects people, regardless of borders, through millions of links of integration ranging from trade, finance and property, up to information,” Havel told Canadian parliamentarians in 1999.
In 1995, the year after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, U.S. president Bill Clinton delivered disarmingly personal remarks, laced with anecdotes about family trips to Canada, and lightened by joshing around with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien. In hindsight, Clinton’s easy, confident manner mirrored the moment—the early days of what turned out to be a sustained stretch of U.S. prosperity, and Canada’s own shift into strong economic growth.
Obama arrived on the Hill today in a more crimped time. The instinct behind England’s vote to leave the EU mocks Havel’s vision of fading borders as naïve. In the year of Trump’s snarl, anything like Clinton’s 1995-vintage upbeat banter would come off as oddly out of touch. On the other hand, Mandela’s wise reminder about people needing to feel better off for democracy to be secure was pretty much what Obama and Trudeau are telling us.
Obama also arrived near the end of his second term. He could hardly talk with the bravado of a leader who might himself overcome, in his time in office, any challenges he set out. But that also lent his speech poignancy. Here was a President who, despite great gifts, faced endlessly frustrating obstacles and intractable problems. So when he spoke of the need to keep fighting for “pluralism, tolerance and equality,” and for rights like freedom of religion and a free press abroad, it didn’t come off as filler. “Those things are hard, but they are right,” Obama said. “They are not always convenient, but they are true.”
What set Obama’s speech today apart was how his credibility about what’s hard and inconvenient, in this late stage of his presidency, hasn’t robbed him of the ability to sound audacious regarding what’s right and true.