He rolled into town a hero without saying a word. Last Thursday, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America arrived in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, and was greeted by the type of screaming hysteria Canadian politicians can only dream of.
While some media reports had expected a multitude, the crowd came in at a respectable 2,000. Quite a good crowd considering the snow, the overcast skies, and the fact that it was a working day, not enough to populate an Old Testament movie, but enough to fill part of the Parliamentary grounds. They vied for the best spots near the barricades, some made their own platforms by rolling giant snow balls three to four feet high, all to get a glimpse of the president and his motorcade for a few fleeting seconds.
Truth be told, the last time I stood on the front lawn of the Parliament buildings covering a president’s visit there were many more people, but they were yelling and screaming for a different reason. That visit was in 2004, and George W. Bush was being vilified as a warmonger, an evil pawn of globalisation, and a terrorist.
I have to say I don’t understand the hysteria over either man. The adoration of Barack Obama is as irrational as the hatred toward George W. Bush, both emotional responses, which deny their full humanity. For Mr. Bush the hatred strips his humanity away, for Mr. Obama, it raises him to a new level above humanity. Neither view offers the full measure of the man.
President Obama was not in town to meet his adoring fans, though; instead he was reviving a long-standing tradition of American politicians making Canada their first foreign visit. A chance for two neighbours who share the longest undefended border and have the largest trading relationship in the world, to get to know each other.
In every game you need a play, a player, an event that turns the tide, one way or another. In so many ways, that is President Obama at the moment, moving American politics leftward, yes, but also allowing people to look at ideas, some of them leftovers from the Bush years, with fresh eyes. Take the handling of the environment in this meeting.
When Australian Prime Minister John Howard visited Ottawa in May 2006, media coverage focussed on Howard’s plans to move Australia away from the Kyoto Protocol and towards an agreement called the Asia-Pacific Six. The group, consisting of Australia, the United States and perhaps Canada under Prime Minister Harper, saw problems in Kyoto not including India or China, two countries with bustling economies, low environmental standards and no requirement to limit greenhouse gasses. The Asia-Pacific Six agreement was a way to pull China and India into a mechanism for lowering greenhouse gases, but to Canadian environmentalists, wedded to Kyoto at all costs, this was surrender to the “far-right” policies of George Bush and John Howard.
During the official news conference at the end of President Obama’s meetings with Prime Minister Harper, the president said “The more that within this hemisphere we can show leadership, I think the more likely it is that we can draw in countries like China and India, whose participation is absolutely critical for us to be able to solve this problem over the long term.”
Now, I heard President Bush say similar words in the past, whether watching him on TV or in person, the exact sentiment expressed by the new president, I heard expressed by the old. Back then, the idea that we needed to draw in China and India was met with critical scorn, today, it is taken as truth. That is a game changer.
Mark Stricherz has written here at MercatorNet about another potential game changer, the possibility of President Obama ending or defusing the culture wars, by appointing pro-life judges and going against his party’s grain. I think it unlikely to happen but if anyone has the political capital to spend on such a project, it is the new president. No other Democrat could successfully shift his party away from the hard-left cultural stance the party of Kennedy has adopted since the early 1970s.
The President himself has spoken on fatherhood, during a speech to a south-side Chicago church, he admonished absent fathers, particularly in America’s African-American community. Acknowledging that he himself came from a single-parent home, one that took a toll on his mother “So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle – that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls; that if I could give them anything, I would give them that rock – that foundation – on which to build their lives. And that would be the greatest gift I could offer.” To impart that lesson to a nation would be a game changer.
Having sat in a room for near 40 minutes with President Obama, I can say I now understand his charisma, his appeal to so many. With America hurting, and so much of the world hurting with it, we can only hope the new president uses his appeal to heal, to change the game, to make him worthy of the warm reception he received on a cold and snowy day in Ottawa.
Brian Lilley is MercatorNet’s Associate Editor.