Canada’s love affair with Barack Obama

We like him more than Americans do, with some small concerns

Canada’s love affair with Barack Obama

We love him, with an asterisk. The broad-band smile, the Lincolnesque bearing, the sense of the man as an avatar of multiculturalism—it all makes Barack Obama the perfect U.S. president in the eyes of Canadians. Heaven knows we’ve been waiting. When the motorcade rolls down Wellington Street next week, or pulls up to Rideau Hall, you can expect dewy-eyed kids to line barricades with paper flags, no matter how foul the Ottawa weather. Eighty-two per cent of us say we approve of Obama, the polls indicate, and the number requires a moment to digest. Never mind American politicians. Who’s the last American we can say that about?

When Angus Reid Strategies quizzed Canadians last week on behalf of Maclean’s, the lines practically glowed with excitement over a perceived new era in Canada-U.S. relations. More than half of respondents said they think Obama’s economic policies will be good for Canada—however bleak the outlook for the U.S. economy. Same went for his energy policy, while fully six out of 10 voiced support for his environmental program (remember that?), suggesting Stephen Harper got it right when he proposed a plan to coordinate the two countries’ climate change strategies.

The results spoke to the affinity Canadians have felt toward Obama since he burst onto the U.S. electoral scene, setting a fresh tone for a country a lot of us had given up trying to understand. After eight years of voicing diffidence, if not scorn toward the previous administration, 41 per cent of our respondents want greater ties with the U.S., compared to just nine per cent who think we should distance ourselves from our southern neighbours (44 per cent think we should maintain the same level). And it’s clear that Canadians are flattered by his decision to put us so near the top of his itinerary: 61 per cent of those polled say they plan to follow media coverage of the visit, which will last only half a day.

To describe this as a break with the recent past is near-sinful understatement. The last time Canadians were asked, we rated George W. Bush’s global leadership below that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and we have consistently voiced hope to pollsters that better relations were around the corner. Even Americans aren’t as bullish as Canadians on Obama these days, giving him still-generous approval ratings between 64 and 73 per cent, depending on who’s doing the polling. In Washington, things have been downright tough: two of Obama’s key political appointees have been forced to withdraw due to tax irregularities, and his stimulus package has been subject to a wall of partisan opposition in Congress. He may be glad for five hours in a place where the honeymoon remains in full swing.

Still, we are Canadians, which means Obama will also get a taste of the old-time fatalism that runs just beneath our optimism. In recent weeks, talk of American protectionism—most notably the “buy American” requirement in the stimulus package—has stirred long-standing insecurities about Congress’s tendency to pull up the drawbridge when times get tough. Those fears were reflected in our poll results. When asked if Obama would be good for Canada on cross-border trade, or on the auto industry, the numbers dropped to 41 per cent, and 38 per cent, respectively. “Putting aside his popularity,” says Mario Canseco, Angus Reid’s vice-president of public affairs, “Democratic governments are always perceived as more protectionist.”

So the asterisk is important, more so for Canadian leaders than for Obama himself. Several old Washington hands told Maclean’s that the government is lucky for the chance to make its wishes known while the new President is still fresh in the job. “Those are the visits a leader tends to remember,” says Michael Kergin, Canada’s ambassador to Washington from 2000 until 2005. “After the first six months or a year it starts to become routine.” Given the Canadian inclination to blame our problems on our southern neighbours, Kergin adds, it is important to tackle the issues before the bloom is off the relationship: differences will almost certainly intervene, forcing both sides to put politics before friendship. Trade barriers, America’s thickening border, Arctic sovereignty, Obama’s promise to review NAFTA—these are just a few of the issues bound to test the countries’ mutual ties.

Walking that wire is a lot more difficult for prime ministers than it is for presidents. “Historically, there’s always been a price to be paid for being seen as too close to the United States,” notes Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Relations at Carleton University. And while Bush’s departure reduces those risks, it also raises complications. Under Bush, a prime minister could score cheap political points by defying the White House, or boasting grandly when it extracted some small concession from the administration. That won’t work under a president Canadians happen to like, and with whom they want their government to co-operate. If you can’t strike deals with someone as constructive and diplomatic as Obama, voters might reasonably ask, what kind of negotiator are you?

The good news for Canadian leaders is that our expectations are surprisingly low. Fully 46 per cent of those polled expect the current U.S. government to be more protectionist than the last. Less than half think Washington’s stimulus package is likely to end the recession. In short, there’s nowhere to go but up. More importantly, we’ve made up our minds on what threatened to be the most divisive foreign policy question facing the country: when asked whether Canada should keep its troops in Afghanistan should Obama request it, 65 per cent said no while only 20 per cent said yes. “We paid at the office big time on Afghanistan, and this is starting to permeate the Canadian psyche,” says Kergin. “It’s not so much a question of being supportive to the Americans as whether the war should be waged. I’ll bet if you asked them, Canadians would tell you Obama shouldn’t be waging it, either.”

That broad sentiment will come as no surprise to Stephen Harper, who has held to his election promise to end Canada’s military mission there in 2011. Still, resolution of the Afghanistan issue may prove the least of the Prime Minister’s worries when it comes to U.S. relations. Harper scored well below Michael Ignatieff in our poll on two key measures of confidence, with fully 40 per cent of respondents saying the Liberal leader would be better at maintaining relations with Obama, compared to 29 per cent who thought Harper would. Ignatieff also topped the Prime Minister on the question of who would stand up to Obama if Canadian interests were threatened (36 per cent of those polled chose the Grit leader; 28 per cent picked Harper). All of this points to some serious approval problems for the PM.

The question is whether anything he does during this week’s visit will ease those problems. Canseco, for one, has his doubts. The pollster points to Harper’s 38 per cent job approval rating in the Maclean’s survey, which lags four points behind Ignatieff’s, and marks a stunning decline from the double-digit leads Harper enjoyed over Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, before the government’s catastrophic fiscal update last fall. Canseco cites growing awareness of Ignatieff’s qualifications for the remarkable shift (“he’s a professor, he lived in the States”) along with a steady drift of support from the NDP back to the Liberals. Others suspect the numbers have less to do with Ignatieff’s foreign policy credentials than concern about Harper’s judgment. “His problem is that Canadians have to some extent lost confidence in his leadership,” says Hampson. “Harper’s political challenge in this upcoming summit is to see if he can get some of the Obama glow to shine on him.”

It is the sort of thing to which Obama has become accustomed—this faith in his power to raise the fortunes of others. And it’s not like the Conservatives are the only ones sidling up to him. Ignatieff lodged his own request for an audience with the President, lest the Conservatives revive their fortunes under the man’s reflected light. Given the depth of Canadian ardour for the new Leader of the Free World, that’s probably not a bad play. For now, at least, everyone’s ignoring the asterisk.