The American president’s speech to the House of Commons will inevitably be described as historic, because Canadians still really love Barack Obama. We think he might secretly be Canadian.
And the very fact that the most powerful leader on Earth stood in our Parliament and shouted that “the world NEEDS more Canada” is enough to leave many of us glowing with true patriot love and swollen with affection for our sort-of-similar cousins.
Imagine, though, a foreign leader, say our prime minister, standing in the well of Congress and yelling that the world NEEDS more America? It’d send Republicans into an exceptionalist swoon, but liberals everywhere would roll eyes and sneer.
We’re so easily flattered.
Anyway, Barack Obama’s address to Parliament was pleasurable enough, and bubbling with gravitas, even if the reverse television shot kept actually showing the script on his Teleprompter.
He’s monumentally cool, and possesses comedic timing professional comedians openly envy. The line about the BeaverTail, a gooey Ottawa-invented concoction of fried dough and jam, being “better than it sounds” was delivered with perfect offhand bewilderment.
If anything, Obama’s easy authority and diffident confidence makes Justin Trudeau’s jokey talk about their “bromance” and “dude-plomacy” seem sort of cringey-lame.
About the speech, though: Obama managed to pack in tolerance, diversity, multi-culti, climate change, the duty of hard power to keep peace while punishing evil, the imperative of fighting inequality and discrimination and bigotry and nativism, our collective moral obligation to fight the outrage of poverty abroad, the need to make decisions based on fact and evidence, a rousing call to eliminate diseases and produce the first AIDS-free generation and a plea to recognize that some values are universal, and that we should set aside timidity and unabashedly fight for pluralism, equality and tolerance.
It was almost exhaustingly worthy, even for someone who happens to believe in most of those things.
But really, it was a variation of the same speech he’s been making since he burst into the American political sky 12 years ago, with that speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, the one where he declared a new era of unity, telling the nation there is “no red America and blue America, there is just the United States of America.”
It sounded wonderful. It appealed to everyone’s better angels, which is Obama’s thing. But to put it politely, it was … aspirational.
Because there is a blue America, and there is a red America, and they can barely stand one another, and Barack Obama never really bridged anything.
Back when he began his first presidential run, he’d reach out like a preacher and shout: “WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”
And they would vault to their feet as one, cheering insanely, because it sounded so good, and felt so good, never mind that it turned into air if you parsed it.
And in Ottawa on Wednesday, when he lifted his chin the way he does, and pursed his lips, and glared out at Parliament and said that Americans and Canadians “see ourselves in each other and our lives are better for it,” and that “we believe in the right of all people to participate in society,” our parliamentarians cheered almost as wildly, because it sounded like something Canadians believe.
In a sense, Obama has used his intellectual gifts for motivational speaking. He tells audiences what they want to believe, as though that makes those things true.
It was almost rich to hear him, standing in the legislature of a country whose chattering class is rife with anti-American sentiment and whose government intervenes as a matter of policy to protect Canadian culture and business, bang on earnestly about how Canadians, like Americans, abhor protectionism and understand the “awesome power of free markets.”
The risks of nuance
It’s actually tempting to say Obama doesn’t make historic speeches, that he only sounds historic, and that he certainly isn’t a JFK or an FDR. Or even a Ronald Reagan.
But a colleague points out that that wouldn’t be fair, because Kennedy and Roosevelt and Reagan framed the world as a struggle between good and evil, and Obama, to the frustration of Republicans, refuses to be that reductionist.
His critics regard him as contemptible for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terror,” even after Muslim extremists commit mass murder on American soil.
Obama replies that to use such a phrase changes nothing, and only intensifies racial hatred. Similarly, when criticized for refusing to proclaim American exceptionalism in his speeches, he replied that everyone thinks his or her country is exceptional.
That sort of nuance is appealingly intelligent, it just doesn’t go down in history.
Or maybe it does.
Solemnly calling out the names John Ridsdel and Robert Hall in the House of Commons and leaving it at that, without dwelling on the atrocious deaths those two Canadians suffered, was exquisitely pure.
It’s hard to imagine any other world leader singling out the Trudeau government’s effort at reconciliation with indigenous people, even using the uniquely Canadian term “First Nations.”
And it was good to hear an American president effectively concede Canada was right all those years ago to engage Cuba, rather than try to isolate and destroy it, and even understand the Canadian fear of American tourists, with all their money and, well, Americanism, flooding back onto Varadero’s beaches.
But as Obama looked down on Justin Trudeau and his wife, nodding vigorously at practically everything he said, you have to wonder what was going through his head.
Maybe: take it easy with the happy-hopey talk, son, because they won’t thank you when things don’t change?
Or does he still believe it all? There’s no knowing, obviously, but as Barack Obama’s political summer ends, and he walks offstage with all that grey hair, it’d be great to ask him, just once.
Neil Macdonald covered Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and was in Chicago’s Grant Park when he accepted the presidency on election night, 2008.
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