Here’s a dry twig to add to the bonfire of sorrows over last year’s presidential election. For a sitting president, securing votes in primaries and general elections beats any business and political relationship, even with Canada. “Even a good president’s feelings don’t count for much” should be stamped at the top of every fat memo about Canada’s geopolitical options.
Barack Obama completed his historic presidency thinking as a Democratic politician: about his party’s interests, its allies, and its vanities about what’s best. The sweaty old pols were wrong. He didn’t overthink. He calculated and acted as a partisan president.
Being liberal-minded as well, Canadians decided eight years ago that Obama would be serving our interests when serving the “better angels” of America. If nothing happened, we’d accept that it wasn’t important or that our prime minister was on the wrong side ideologically—that, for instance, having a liberal across the table from another liberal would work wonders. It was gauche to raise structural issues: the asymmetry of economic and political power, the Democratic Party’s protectionist base, and the pesky fact that two-term presidents, like two-term prime ministers, usually become a touch arbitrary, and slightly bewitched by their power.
Canadians think about America’s future every day. And we hoped Obama would think sympathetically about us now and then. However, being a partisan in 2016, Obama spent his political capital strictly shoring up support for his party and his own presidency with US voters. Period.
Obama stopped promoting his own TPP trade deal with its enhanced trade terms for Canada and allies in Asia, and freed his candidate Hillary Clinton to campaign against it. He worked and dined with our new liberal Prime Minister several times through the year, without giving Canada any ground on softwood lumber quotas, or “Buy America” procurement practices, or even a down payment for the US half of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. And, possibly of greater longer-term consequence, Obama never clearly championed the case for a common North American tax on carbon, a declaration that would have strengthened the credibility of Obama’s Paris agreement on Climate Change in Canada.
We can’t blame nasty 2016 for any of it.
It was hardly a bad year for Obama personally, or for America’s economy, or for the election prospects of his party, right through the first 10 happy months of the year. He didn’t trim his support for free trade or neglect Canada-US relations for a greater good: say, for instance, stopping a phony socialist or fascistic, vulgar amateur from winning the White House. His candidate Hillary Clinton was winning big, right up to their last joint campaign rally. Furthermore, until midsummer it was assumed that the Republicans would barely get their act together and would lose with a run-of-the-mill mainstream free trader or unelectable boor.
Yet again, Obama played US electoral politics to the hilt, without regard to friends in the bleachers.