The Love Affair With Obama

I am not surprised that Canadians are getting caught up in the hype surrounding Barack Obama. Personally, I have already been invited to present six conferences since his election to discuss the ‘Obama Effect.’ Why is this? Have we suddenly fallen for the rock star glamour surrounding his success? It is all a bit odd, considering polls taken in Canada at this time a year ago seemed to favour Hillary Clinton.

To some, his popularity in Canada should be seen as an indictment of our current political class. After all, no party leader in Canada is polling above 35 per cent; no provincial leader is considered an emerging PM—in fact, I know few Canadians who can name all ten premiers; and the federal cabinet is virtually anonymous. To others, this seemingly invisible and unexciting political class is consistent with the nature of our country: boring, overly polite, and reluctant to boast about its achievements. Fareed Zakaria’s column in Newsweek addresses this perception of Canada as the “boring neighbor to the north.” In it, Zakaria describes our country as a model of good governance, lauds our still-imperfect health care system as superior to the US model, and acknowledges that our more reliable and secure banking system is a source of greater financial stability. An American journalist praising Canada on the eve of a visit by the most popular American president in recent memory? Wow! Not bad for a political class that no one really cares for or gets enthused about.

So let us say it loud and clear: Canada is a success story in the community of nations. Our economic performance is celebrated by all serious analysts; our democracy, while in need of perfecting, is still the envy of most of the world; and the quality of life in our communities and cities represent a model for many to emulate—starting with our friends below the 49th parallel. Our social safety net is generous, compassionate, and fair. Our leaders may appear drab when compared to FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama. But, by and large, they have gotten the job done. We speak two official languages and celebrate our diversity while resisting the melting pot approach. We have a Charter of Rights and our judges are not chosen on the basis of ideology or party service. We certainly have our problems. Our treatment of the First Nations throughout our history is not something to be proud of, though we are constantly trying to make changes in the right direction. And while Quebec has still not signed the 1982 constitution, we somehow manage to do great things together. We solve our conflicts through debate, dialogue, and the occasional referendum.

So why the love affair with the U.S. president? Obama is undeniably the most impressive politician to come in years. He represents generational change and has inspired a new wave of voters. It is far too early to predict his success—he may turn out to be a disappointment, but he is proposing the kind of changes that many electors were looking for in the U.S. in the wake of the mediocre presidency of George W. Bush.

Canadians, for their part, want something or someone new. The last time I remember Canadians feeling this way was in the 1960’s. Americans chose JFK and we elected Pierre Trudeau, easily the most charismatic PM in our time, later in the same decade . During every conference I have given, I am asked: Will we have our Obama? My answer is that our countries differ in temperament, in political culture, and in structure. Overall, Canada has been well served by its leaders. They are rarely spectacular but they have helped make Canada an enviable country. But I do conclude by saying that change is a-comin’, that voters want the real goods. Authenticity pays and showing respect for the intelligence of the Canadian people is a winning proposition. Sounds a lot like what Obama sold America, and that is really what the love affair is all about.