British Columbia·Point of View

Barack Obama's address to adoring Vancouver crowd full of hope and worry

This was a traditional opportunity for an ex-president to tell stories, make some easy local references and offer the same lessons about leadership he gave earlier that day in Calgary and the day before in Winnipeg. But it was also a time for warnings.

The former president alternated between dire warnings and assuring the crowd that things would work out

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to a crowd at the Vancouver Convention Centre on March 5, 2019, in an event hosted by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. (Greater Vancouver Board of Trade)

"Don't fuss too much about what you hear on the news," said former U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday night, at the end of his hour-long address in Vancouver. 

"We're good." 

The audience of 3,500, which included mayors and billionaires alike (or at least one each, in the case of Kennedy Stewart and Chip Wilson) laughed mostly appreciatively, somewhat nervously. 

Throughout Obama's back and forth with Greater Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Iain Black, there was that gentle tension. 

After all, any opportunity to see arguably the most famous politician of the 21st century — complete with a Sarah McLachlan four-song concert to warm things up — is bound to be a feel-good occasion in a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver. 

This was a traditional opportunity for an ex-president to tell stories, make some easy local references (a joke about how surprisingly nice the weather was happened thirty seconds in) and offer the same lessons about leadership he gave earlier that day in Calgary and the day before in Winnipeg

But it was also a time to give warnings.

Threats on the horizon

Often, Obama returned to the same themes: there are serious challenges Canada and the United States face, from global warming to ensuring the middle class benefits from globalization, and there are dire consequences if our leaders don't take action.

"If two billion Indian and Chinese are burning [greenhouse gases] at our pace, the planet will literally be uninhabitable," he said at one point, outlining why we had to take the lead in showing the rest of the world reducing emissions is possible.

"I don't mean to paint this horrible dystopian future. These are just facts."

It was part of a 10-minute segment when there was little levity to be had. Until Black asked about excerpts from Michelle Obama's book, where she described a young Barack as, among other things, "cocky."

"I was a little cocky when I was younger. But she liked it," he said, bringing back the laughs. 

Trump never mentioned 

It's hard for any former president's remarks not to be viewed through the lens of the person currently occupying the White House and so it was for Obama.

"We still underwrite the world order ... if we stop doing that, a vacuum happens," he said, at the beginning of a riff about how the United States had a key role to play in upholding international norms on finance, diplomacy and human rights. 

He never mentioned the president directly. But Obama said early on in his speech, "I'm proud of the fact we left without a scandal" and talked at length about the Republican Party's evolution ever since Sarah Palin was named its vice-presidential nominee in 2008. 

And when he said that he tried to approach tough situations using "outdated notions like reason and logic and facts," Obama got a laugh.

It wasn't really a laugh line. But such is the moment. 

Former president Barack Obama shares a laugh with Greater Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Iain Black during his presentation at the Vancouver Convention Centre. (Greater Vancouver Board of Trade)

Up to the future

Obama wrapped up his address by talking about the work he hopes to do in education and leadership. He professed optimism that a new generation could rise up, find common ground with political opponents and "remake institutions" so they could meet the challenges of the era. 

It generated the happy ending required for these sorts of things — while also acknowledging it would be someone other than the 44th president making those changes. 

This won't be the last time Obama comes to the Pacific Northwest to make a major speech, but I was reminded of his first arena speech to a sold-out Seattle crowd, days before the 2008 Washington state primary. 

"I believe in my gut if we could just join together, across racial divisions, across gender divisions, young, old, rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight ... then there is no problem we could not solve," he said to the crowd back then.

One person in attendance back then told this reporter, "I see him as a cross between a young Kennedy and a Martin Luther King, in terms of inspiration and hope."

There was still plenty of hope in the Vancouver Convention Centre on Tuesday. 

But this was a different address, for a different time. 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.

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