Jobs and Obama: story time

With yesterday's speeches, it was hard not to envy these occasions Americans have to take the measure of their leaders

Jobs and Obama: story timeI’m not asserting some enduring national character difference when I point out that Canada doesn’t have a political leader or a business leader right now who could begin to attract as much attention by giving a speech as Steve Jobs and Barack Obama did today. Nor indeed do we have a leader in either field, for the moment, who would even bother to try.

As I’ve pointed out before, Stephen Harper is the third prime minister in a row who will not make a big speech on television to put his case before the nation unless it’s his own political hide that’s in the balance, as Paul Martin did in 2005 and Jean Chrétien, perhaps a hair more nobly, did a week before the 1995 referendum. On the business side, try to imagine even the relatively flamboyant Mike Lazaridis or Jim Balsillie giving a big public speech to launch a new BlackBerry product. They never do. They let the thing dribble onto the market and trust people to figure out that it’s arrived, and then decide for themselves how it fits into their lifestyles and their… their… their personal consumer mythspace, which is what I suppose Steve Jobs is conjuring with his occasional trade-show unveiling rituals.

In both politics and business, however, Canadians have not always been so furtive, bashful or tongue-tied. Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau both used to plunge into grand projects with very shaky chances of winning public appeal, and both favoured big set speeches, before select audiences or on national TV, to state their case and try to make some gains. As recently as the early 1990s, fine public speakers who used oratory as a key element of their political strategy were practically falling from the trees across Canada: Preston Manning, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, arguably Paul Martin. Manning used to pull whatever parliamentary strings he needed to buy himself some time in the legislative day, stack a text he’d typed himself on top of three thick law books, and hold a surprising number of MPs, including more than a few on the government side, spellbound for an hour or more as he put flesh on the bones of his Reform vision. There are fewer examples of Canadian businessmen who used blarney to make a buck, but I do believe there was a little of Steve Jobs in Dave Nicholls, the President’s Choice huckster whose TV commercials and flyers depended on his ability to tell a story about worldly affluence brought within reach of the ordinary shopper.

These days, however, I got nothing for ya. In the absence of a constitutional requirement to explain himself annually, Stephen Harper, who can be an effective speaker, almost never tells a coherent story about his plan for Canada’s future. Michael Ignatieff would like to be a fine speaker, but even his partisans have trouble quoting one of his lines, unless it’s a coalition if necessary but not necessarily coalition.” Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall is a charming keynote speaker, but with that partial exception none of our premiers makes oratory and story-telling a centrepiece of his political action. In business, meanwhile, perhaps the best that can be said is that while our entrepreneurs don’t cut much of a public profile, in most cases one wouldn’t want them to.

Meanwhile, south of the border, there are Steve Jobs and Barack Obama. Measured against what each set out to accomplish, Jobs had a better outing on Wednesday, but as Babe Ruth once said when comparing his own salary to Herbert Hoover’s, Jobs has had a better year. All Obama got was an inauguration and a Nobel Peace Prize; Jobs won a place in the pockets of millions of consumers, and for the first time in its history, Apple has a real shot at dominating consumer electronics, not just carving out a tony niche. His California speech could hardly have contained much less surprise — he had a new steroidal iPod to peddle — but the newspapers and Twitter had much more buzz about him than about the President, who is neither soaring nor tanking these days but merely listing a little. Both men were trying to repackage familiar products. Obama wants health care to pass, Afghanistan to get easier at last rather than harder, partisanship to leave Congress and the fiscal books to balance. Jobs wants to address complex info-tech needs with a simple user interface. It’s basically the same thing he’s been trying to do since 1983 at least.

Jobs had better success making his repackaged wares seem new. I know, I know, Jobs has the easier job. He faces no effective opposition within Apple, his sales force isn’t fighting two wars, and he didn’t inherit quite the financial mess that Obama did, although Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio certainly did their best. Still, it was possible to watch him spout his trademark superlatives about the iPad and believe this really was a new day. Almost immediately critics dismissed the new computer panel as just an oversized iPod Touch, but I believe that’s actually the secret of its success: thousands of developers have already spent two years cooking up apps for the iPhone and iTouch; they’re guaranteed to get right to work dreaming up things the iPad can do. Apple’s weakness forever has been an inadequate flow of innovative software. Jobs has guaranteed the new gadget won’t face the same problem. By porting the iPhone experience onto a larger machine, Jobs has conscripted thousands of entrepreneurial allies to his adventure. At last he’s not a loner.

Obama had a moment of real courage, when he promised to re-open the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that discriminates against gays in the military. He spoke a lot of sense, as when he reminded Democrats they still command a historic majority in Congress and that maybe it’s early for them to turn tail. His reluctance to indulge in flash and fancy footwork — the surprise is that this most unusual president is almost always so prosaic — can sometimes be refreshing. At least he’s not trying to snow anyone. But the flash polls suggested this speech was markedly less persuasive than the one he gave a year ago.

Evaluations of the two speakers’ performance aside, it was hard not to envy these occasions Americans have to take the measure of their leaders in various fields. In Canada, to a much greater extent and at least for now, we’re left guessing what key players have planned.