Canadians no longer swoon for Obama


TORONTO, Canada — Almost a year ago — when U.S. President Barack Obama came to Canada and said, “I love this country” — it seemed the collective swoon would last forever. But a year in politics, as the cliche goes, is a lifetime.

Not that Obama now leaves Canadians cold — far from it. It’s hard to overstate just how reviled George W. Bush and his administration was here. It will take more than a year before Canadians stop being grateful to the man who threw Bush’s ilk out of office.

(Read about Canadians' anticipation of Obama's inauguration one year ago.)

Obama’s inspirational personality and oratorical skills also highlight the glaring fact that Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, is an accountant who possesses all the charisma of that tedious profession.

Canada’s regionally divided politics has meant that Harper’s Conservative party has been able to form minority governments since 2006 with about 36 percent of the vote. Obama reminds many Canadians of the urbane leadership that once characterized their country, and how inadequate the current crop of politicians here is. For this, too, they are grateful.

But a year is enough to transform a politician who looked like he could walk on water to one bruised by wrestling with bottom feeders.

“One year into Barack Obama's term of office, two remarkable things stand out: how little he has achieved on the core issues on his agenda and how potent the right wing has grown during his watch,” wrote political scientist James Laxer, one of Canada’s more prominent left of center analysts.

“It's too early to make a prediction, but this has the feel of a one-term presidency about it,” he wrote last Sunday in a guest column for the Toronto Star newspaper.

“On the four great questions that have shaped his year in the White House — the economy, health care, war and the environment — Obama cannot claim any clear victories,” he added.

The most disappointing realization is that Obama is more a leader of pragmatic steps than of bold initiatives. While others invest in him their dreams, Obama settles for what can be done.

How else to explain the Senate health care reform bill Obama seems willing to accept? It fails to extend health insurance to all those currently without it, it doesn’t cap the premiums insurance companies can charge and it doesn’t allow for a public insurance option that would have created real price competition.

And, to claw his way to this limited health reform, he cut a deal with big pharmaceutical companies to keep the price of medication high and to block the import of cheaper drugs from Canada. How does “main street” — the ordinary folk Obama constantly invokes — benefit from that?

Likewise, Obama has banned torture in the name of fighting terrorism, but has balked at pursuing the Bush officials who created the legal framework that allowed it to happen; he’s moving to close Guantanamo Bay, but has upheld the policy of rendition, which abducts terror suspects and sends them to countries that use torture; and he’s moved to pull U.S. soldiers from Iraq, but approved a surge of soldiers for Afghanistan.

Canadians, in other words, are much like Americans: One year after Obama’s inauguration, they like the man more than his policies.

On matters directly relating to Canada, little has changed under Obama. Canadians still have to put up with the ignorance exhibited by Homeland Security Secretary Janice Napolitano, who wrongly stated last April that the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. through Canada.

This persistent legend informs U.S. policy and thickens a once vaunted open border with heavy security, slowing down the cross-border trade that is the lifeline of Canada’s economy.

It was also business as usual when Obama accepted the Buy American clause in his stimulus package, which bars Canadian firms that don’t manufacture in the U.S. from competing for local American infrastructure contracts. Canadians are used to being barely an afterthought — if that — when it comes to American interests. It just stings more when the rebuke comes from someone who represented a break from the international myopia of the Bush years.

On the battle to fend off global warming, Obama has so far turned out to be a convenient cover for Stephen Harper.

The Canadian prime minister heads a cabinet that has been widely criticized as rife with climate change deniers. Canada has developed one of the worst carbon emissions records in the world. Harper’s response, when challenged, is to say that Canada is waiting to match the Obama administration’s carbon reduction targets, whenever those are set.

Canada’s shameful environment record is due in significant part to the extraction of oil from the massive, tar-like mess of bitumen and sand deposit in the western province of Alberta. Virtually all of that oil flows south to the U.S.

Obama’s advisers used to refer to the oil sands as “dirty oil.” But will Obama place restrictions on this secure supply of oil in the name of the bold climate change policy he vows to enact?

Judging from his record so far, Canadians won’t be surprised if Obama’s pragmatic penchant keeps the dirty oil flowing freely south.

Says Laxer: “While his sweeping intellectual capacity remains in evidence, Barack Obama's ability to deliver the goods to those who voted for him or at least to convey to them the message that he is on their side is now in serious doubt. He has time to change this. If not, he could be out of a job by 2013.”

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)