Canadians see in Obama the traits they wish they had, but Americans see failure on many fronts: Neil Macdonald

Former U.S. president Barack Obama is speaking today in Montreal. The event was sold out less than an hour after tickets went on sale. That's no surprise, writes Neil Macdonald, given that even during his least popular days as president, Obama remained beloved here.

When Bill Clinton 'triangulated,' it was savvy politics. When Obama did the same, it was failure

What would have been the reaction if former U.S. president Barack Obama had said half the things that his swaggering, sneering, grossly uncool successor has glorified in tweeting since he took office? (Shutterstock / John Gress Media )

Former U.S. president Barack Obama is speaking today in Montreal. The event was sold out weeks ago, less than an hour after tickets went on sale.

Of course, it was. Even during his least popular days as president, Obama remained beloved here. During the 2012 U.S. election, one poll suggested 65 per cent of Canadians would have voted for Obama if they could have. Nine per cent would have voted for his Republican counterpart Mitt Romney.

I'm not much on pop psychology, but it does seem pretty obvious that Canadians see in Obama a whole slew of traits they think are Canadian, or wish were Canadian.

The 'foreign-born' president

Obama is exquisitely polite, at least in public. He doesn't really traffic in cheap insults. He elevated optimism to a transcendent level. He tries to compromise, or at least he did when he first took power. He does not lash out when insulted, and goodness knows this man knows what it is to be insulted.

He was denounced as an inauthentic, foreign-born American by the birther movement, which, incidentally, was led by the boor now occupying the Oval.

Conservatives routinely speculated that he was a terrorist-loving Muslim, a socialist, a communist, an anti-Semite, a hater of America and a new Hitler (putting a Hitler moustache on his portrait was a favourite Tea Party move). 

While Obama reportedly has a massive ego, he does a better job of hiding it than most, writes Neil Macdonald. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

In reply, he would just smile that easy smile, sometimes even appropriating the attacks for laughs: "These days, I look in the mirror, and I have to admit, I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be," he told the White House correspondents' dinner in 2013.

I was in the audience when he made that joke, and the laughter wasn't just laughter, it was affectionate laughter. There's a difference.

Obama was, and remains, effortlessly cool, something we'd all like to be. He is loose and athletic, wears a suit beautifully, has a master comedian's sense of timing (as Jerry Seinfeld acknowledged in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). And while he reportedly has a massive ego, he does a better job of hiding it than most.

Name another politician who would even dare to break into Al Green lyrics in public, let alone pull it off.

Obama cracks jokes at correspondents dinner

7 years ago
Duration 1:38
Mr. President, do you have a bucket list? 'Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list'

I have seen Obama up close several times — I was standing across from him in Chicago's Grant Park when he accepted the presidency — and while I've never been much for the hopey-changey stuff, the power of his presence is not even arguable. I've witnessed it in others, but not often: Quebec sovereigntist Lucien Bouchard during his rise to power, the civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery at a voter registration drive, Senator Elizabeth Warren in a Kentucky labour hall, and perhaps in former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

That said, to the extent that it is possible to judge a president this soon after his presidency, Obama was not transformative; he most certainly did not live up to the expectations he himself created.

For all his better-angels rhetoric — "There isn't a blue America and a red America; there is only the United States of America!" — he did not preside over a grand political bargain but governed mostly by fiats, a lot of which are now being undone by Donald Trump.

It turned out that, to riff on one of his phrases, "we were not the ones we've been waiting for."

Yes, the Republicans were obdurate and uncompromising once they assumed control of the House of Representatives, but for the first two years of his tenure, Obama's party owned Congress, and even at that, his great achievement was a seriously flawed eponymous health care law.

That the Republicans have been unable so far to replace it doesn't redeem it. Obama's attempts at compromise were, in retrospect, a mistake. He should have given Americans the same choice most developed nations offer their citizens: a private system alongside a public system, rather than the weird hybrid of Obamacare.

Obama's attempts at compromise were, in retrospect, a mistake. (Nate Chute/Reuters)

Obama is credited with having saved the post-meltdown economy, but really, George W. Bush's pragmatic socialism — taking over the biggest insurance company in the world and force-feeding cash into the big banks that nearly ruined the economy — saved the day back in late 2008.

And when Obama had America's big predatory banks where he wanted them in 2009 — dependent on government and reviled by the public — he faltered, and they went right back to literally operating against the national interest.

Continuing the Bush legacy

Meanwhile, he doubled down on George W. Bush's national security policies, relying even more heavily on drone attacks abroad that left appalling numbers of innocent civilians dead. The same dreary wars he inherited, he passed on.

He was also more dangerous to the free press than even the sneering, secretive, media-hating Dick Cheney, mauling journalists' privacy rights in pursuit of whistleblowers.

And many black leaders quickly soured on his tentative approach (if you could even call it an approach) to race relations.

In a new biography, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Garrow pronounces his presidency a failure and the president himself "a vessel hollow at its core."

A review by writer Paul Street quotes Garrow quoting black academic superstar and early Obama fan Cornel West, who accuses the former president of being a counterfeit progressive:

"We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency … a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist."

Obama vows to defend U.S. 'core values' as a citizen

5 years ago
Duration 1:59
President says he will speak out if Trump deported children brought to U.S. illegally

Well. The quote is telling: when Bill Clinton "triangulated," it was savvy politics and pragmatic progressivism. When Obama did the same, it was failure.

This is fact: because of his colour, Barack Obama faced natural limits that didn't exist for his white predecessors.

If you don't believe that, ask yourself this: what would have been the reaction if Obama had said half the things that his swaggering, sneering, grossly uncool successor has gloried in tweeting since he took office?

To ask that question is to answer it.

Welcome to Canada, Mr. President. You tried, I guess.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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