Biden gives Trudeau a chance to claw back control of the agenda
The U.S. president gave the prime minister one of his best public moments in months
If nothing else, American presidents are useful for marking time. They symbolize eras and moments.
The last president to address a joint session of Parliament before Friday was Barack Obama in June 2016. Back then, Donald Trump was on the verge of being elected president. Now, Trump is on the verge of being indicted.
Back then, Justin Trudeau was seven months and 25 days into his time as prime minister and his personal approval rating was plus-32. Now, Trudeau has been prime minister for seven years, four months and 20 days and his personal approval rating is minus-19.
"I think we can all agree that our democracies are far from perfect. They can be messy and they can be slow, and they can leave all sides of a debate unsatisfied," Barack Obama told Parliament in 2016. "Justin is just getting started. So in case you hadn't figured that out, that's where this grey hair comes from."
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Trudeau was still the younger man on stage Friday — not a challenge when you're standing next to an 80-year-old president. But he has a few grey hairs of his own now. And it would be surprising if the past month doesn't end up draining more colour from what was once a widely remarked-upon head of hair.
In 2016, Trudeau had to do little more than sit and bask in the reflected glow of Obama. His introductory remarks ran to just 800 words and one of those words was "dudeplomacy."
On Friday, Trudeau spoke for 18 minutes, laying out a vision and a shared agenda for Canada and the United States. Borrowing a trick from the annual State of the Union addresses that American presidents deliver to Congress, Trudeau singled out individuals in the public galleries to highlight his points — a refugee from Ukraine, a steelworker from Ontario, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
"We must and we will meet this moment," Trudeau said after detailing a vision of intersecting economic, environmental and security challenges and opportunities.
After several weeks of every available molecule of political oxygen being sucked up by a series of sensational claims about Chinese state interference in Canadian politics, Trudeau seemed to realize he needed to seize this moment himself.
Biden brings boundless optimism
While human-rights groups were less than enthusiastic, Biden had already delivered Trudeau a political win by agreeing to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement. That news leaked even before the president arrived in Ottawa. But when he addressed Parliament, Biden was nearly boundless in his optimism.
After the requisite talk about friendship and shared values — and after the requisite hockey joke — Biden said he wanted to talk about "the future." And he did so in terms that Trudeau's Liberals would appreciate.
He talked about tackling climate change and supporting clean energy. He asked his audience to imagine how unionized workers would build zero-electric-vehicle charging stations funded by government investments. He spoke hopefully and enthusiastically about zero-emissions vehicle manufacturing, critical minerals and semiconductor production in Canada.
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Biden said his own economic agenda was focused on building a strong middle class. He said diversity was strength. And he gently scolded the Conservatives when they seemed reluctant to applaud the fact that both the Canadian and American cabinets include an equal number of men and women.
He celebrated Canada's contribution to the war in Ukraine and he congratulated Canada on its efforts to free Kovrig and Spavor, citing "the outstanding work Canada has done to build a coalition of nearly 70 countries endorsing the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations."
These are the sorts of things Trudeau has struggled to find room for in the first four months of 2023. And they were delivered to an audience that was far more deferential than any Trudeau is ever likely to encounter again in the House of Commons.
Biden is no poet. He is a classic American pol, able to work a room and entertain. His voice is weaker than it used to be, but as he neared a rousing conclusion with praise for the American and Canadian astronauts who will soon return to the moon, he raised his voice to a shout and wagged a finger.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're living in an age of possibilities," he said. "[Chinese President] Xi Jinping asked me, in the Tibetan Plateau, could I define America. And I could've said the same thing if he asked about Canada. I said, 'Yes. One word … possibilities.'"
The applause nearly drowned him out, but he spoke through it.
"Nothing is beyond our capacity. We can do anything. We have to never forget. We must never doubt our capacity," he said. "Canada and the United States can do big things. We stand together, do them together, rise together. We're going to write the future together, I promise you."
As he walked back down the centre aisle of the House toward Trudeau, Biden winked, as if to say, "That's how you do it." Or maybe, "Hope that helps."