Saturday March 12, 2016

Does it matter if Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama get along?

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau share a laugh as they pose for a photo in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau share a laugh as they pose for a photo in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Listen 14:40

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to Washington has yielded plenty of declarations of neighbourly friendship between Canada and the United States. 

Despite the occasional hockey trash talk, both Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama spent most of the official visit praising one another for their leadership on everything from climate change to gender equality, and underscoring the close ties between the countries. 

But how important is it to Canada – U.S. relations that a prime minister and a president get along? And with Obama nearing the end of his second term, will the warm and fuzzy feelings extend to the next administration — regardless of who occupies the Oval Office?

Patrick Leahy, the long-serving Democrat Senator from Vermont, and David Wilkins, a former ambassador to Canada who served under George W. Bush and spent 25 years as a Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives, joined The House in two separate interviews to discuss that special relationship.

'Take this momentum and do something with it'

There's no doubt about it — Trudeau is riding a wave of popularity right now in Washington.

"Your new Prime Minister has really proved a whole new breath of fresh air. He's a rock star here in the United States," said Leahy. 

"This visit by the Prime Minister has put Canada on the map here in Washington and in the United States, and that's hard to do," Wilkins agreed.

"There's a lot of excitement here, a lot of energy. You've got to take this enthusiasm and this momentum and do something with it."

Wilkins believes Trudeau is off to a good start, sitting down with Obama during the brief visit to talk climate change, expanding customs pre-clearance at the border, and making progress on the softwood lumber trade dispute. 

But it was Trudeau's decision to meet with the Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, that Wilkins said was "extremely important" — and a sign, perhaps, that Trudeau is savvy enough to understand how politics work in the United States.

"I commend the Prime Minister for doing that. Most people don't do that — they talk to the President and go back home. But in our system of government, we have a very strong, distinct three branches of government, and you can have all these grandiose ideas, and handshakes with the President, but if you can't get approval from the legislative body, you don't get anything done."

For Leahy, the presidential – prime ministerial relationship is still the most important. 

"A lot of things get done because of personal connection," he said, adding that he thinks another Democrat president, whether it's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, would be best positioned to further the U.S. – Canada relationship because of their ties to border states. 

"I've talked with both of them and I think they both realize that we've got to go back to closer ties with Canada," Leahy said.

"I think there will be more emphasis [with a Democrat in office]. You're certainly not going to see that with a Donald Trump or one of those people. I don't think they understand the nuances or have respect for different cultures, different religions, different anything else."

How important is the friendship between leaders?

Wilkins disagreed, arguing that a Republican president would benefit Canada more.

"I'm of the opinion that Republicans in general deal better with Canada than Democrats, because we're usually more free traders," the former ambassador said. "I witnessed that for four years with George W. Bush. He was a very good friend of Canada's, he wanted to work with your government, he wanted to trade with Canada."

"I'm prejudiced but I think Canada's in better hands when you have a Republican administration, because I think we're less protectionist and more free trade."

Wilkins also touched briefly on what he makes of the Republican nomination contest currently happening in the United States.

"It's wild and woolly down here in the U.S. right now, no telling what's going to happen," he said.

"There's a lot of anger out there, a lot of frustration, and [Donald Trump] has tapped it, and he's tapped it like no one expected him to tap it."

But a similar situation is unfolding on the other side, Wilkins added.

"For a 74-year-old declared Socialist to be making a strong run against Hillary Clinton shows there's a lot of frustration."

Regardless of who ultimately becomes the next president, Leahy said he just wants to see the goodwill begun by Trudeau and Obama to continue.

"We've had [prime ministers] we've worked well with, where the President could pick up the phone and call them, and it's amazing how things go under the radar and get done so well," he said.

"I want us to get back to that, where no matter who is president, who is prime minister, that we can pick up the phone."