Chris Hall: Is Obama really the best choice for Canada?

Canadians ended up with the U.S. president they like the best, Chris Hall writes. But is he the one who can get the trade taps flowing?

They couldn't vote, but Canadians ended up with their man in the White House anyway.

Barack Obama won another four years, defeating a surprisingly tenacious Mitt Romney, who made a race of it right to the end, at least in the popular vote.

For Canadians, this was the preferred outcome. Obama is the president they know and the leader whose personal story —and political views — they admire.

Polls routinely suggest Obama is hugely popular in this country. It's a crush that goes back to his first visit to Ottawa in February 2009 when thousands of well-wishers flocked to Parliament Hill just for a glimpse and a presidential wave.

But the question now is did Canadians get the president they need? Especially when the candidate who spoke most glowingly about Canada for its energy resources and fiscal probity was the other guy.

Some business leaders don't believe another four years of Obama are necessarily in the best interest of this country.

They point to his inaction in promoting a second bridge at the clogged Windsor, Ont.-Detroit border crossing.

And they argue that Romney would have been better for Canada, because Republicans have a stronger record of supporting free trade, and Alberta's oilsands.

Queen's University political scientist Kim Richard Nossal also points out that Romney actually understands Canada better than most Republicans, growing up as he did in border-state Michigan and summering in Ontario.

With Tuesday's Obama victory, he forecasts four more years of "tepid" dealings.

"We want Barack Obama in the White House but it's not clear it's the best result for us,'' Nossal says. "The last couple of years in Canadian-American relations have been marked by a lack of enthusiasm.''

The fiscal cliff

Perhaps no issue is more pressing for Canada (not to mention the U.S.), than the so-called fiscal cliff facing the president on Jan 1.

Not golf buddies, but a good working relationship, is the way Ottawa insiders define get-togethers between Stephen Harper and Barack Obama over the past four years.

That's the deadline when, by law, a series of mandatory tax hikes and spending cuts will take effect without some agreement between the White House and Congress.

An estimate by the Congressional Budget Office suggests the combined cuts and tax hikes will increase U.S. unemployment by a full percentage point, or two million jobs, and the economy would shrink by hundreds of billions of dollars.

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says the fallout would spread quickly.

"If that happens … the United States will go into a recession almost immediately of four or five per cent,'' he told CBC's Power & Politics.

"We would follow the United States into recession in all likelihood. And it wouldn't take very long.''

Another recession would mean less demand for Canadian goods south of the border. It would mean job losses in most sectors and lower revenues.

All of which would derail the Conservatives' efforts to eliminate the deficit by 2015-16.

Flaherty says negotiating a deal before Jan. 1, or at least a temporary extension, is critical to getting the mighty U.S. economy moving again.

And that might have been easier under Romney than Obama, who has shown little ability in the past three years to work with the Republican-dominated House on any issue.


Trade is another issue where a Republican presidency might have made a difference.

The days of big cross-border irritants like softwood lumber quotas may be gone, but challenges still remain.

The border has steadily thickened in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as U.S. legislators placed a premium on security over trade, cutting into just-in-time deliveries, and discouraging both Canadian and U.S. manufacturers from expanding operations here.

That's one of the reasons why Stephen Harper has begun the tough slog of trying to reduce this country's dependence on U.S. markets, by aggressively promoting trade deals with China and India, as well as the European Union.

David Wilkins, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2005-09, says "a Republican administration is better for Canada. There would tend to be less protectionism.''

But that is not always borne out by the facts, says Pierre Martin, chair of American and economic studies at the University of Montreal.

In a study released this summer, Martin found Canadian economic growth, exports, manufacturing and jobs did better under every Democratic president since 1961.

"There's no real argument on economic grounds to be against the Democrats,'' Martin says. "You can cheer for Romney to win. But don't claim you have Canada's economic interest at heart because the evidence just doesn't support that.''

The Keystone pipeline

From a Canadian perspective, no issue figured more prominently in this campaign than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline connecting Alberta's vast oilsands with refineries in Texas.

Obama delayed approval until after the election, angering the Harper government while appeasing the Democrats' environmental supporters. It was a pivotal factor in the Conservatives push for the Northern Gateway pipeline to take bitumen to emerging markets in Asia.

Romney constantly mentioned his support for Keystone XL in his early stump speeches and the presidential debates, promising he would approve the pipeline on ''Day 1'' of his presidency.

Most observers expect Obama will approve the pipeline early in his second term. But many worry the Democrats will continue to brand Alberta's bitumen as dirty oil that, if it can't be avoided all costs, should only be approved showing as much distaste as they can muster.

What to expect

In the end, most observers, including Nossal, don't expect much to change in Canada-U.S. relations in Obama's second term.

''Look for a fiscal policy that continues to impact the strength of our Canadian dollar, hurting our exports. And look for a continuation of protectionism.''

Congress also plays an important role in many of these cross-border issues. But the tone is still more often set at the top.

Harper and Obama have met more often than most of their predecessors, but many of those get-togethers were during international summits. Their relationship is described in Canadian government circles as workable.

That's a far cry from the days of those golf-playing buddies, Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but it's nowhere near the hostile détente of the 1970s, when former president Richard Nixon famously referred to Pierre Elliott Trudeau as ''an asshole.''

That, at least, counts for something.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc