Harper and Obama try to put a bad year behind them
The Canadian prime minister staggered through a Senate scandal that smothered his economic agenda, tarnished his government’s claim to hold the accountability high ground, and pushed Conservative support in most polls as much as 10 percentage points below the party's support in the last election.
Obama faced White House reporters at a rare news conference last week with the chastened look of someone expecting a lump of coal.
"That's not how I think about it,'' Obama replied, managing a short laugh through clenched teeth. His focus, he said, remains on the economy, predicting 2014 "can be a breakthrough year for America."
His answers in the two given to English-language media were not only scripted, they were nearly identical, neatly packaged into digestible sound bites as interviewers sought his reaction to learning his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had paid off the improper expenses of Senator Mike Duffy.
"A sense of anger, betrayal, disappointment, deception. You name it,'' Harper told Postmedia.
Harper, like Obama, was far happier talking about the future. And given the past year, that’s entirely understandable.
Harper no lame duck
So two leaders, both ending difficult years in office, both feeling the heat from voters, but that's really where the similarities end.
Harper, on the other hand, is planning to run, making it clear in those year-end interviews that he intends to lead the Conservatives in the 2015 election. And even with the first real signs of discontent in his caucus, Harper is anything but a lame duck.
His message remains solid economic stewardship, and on that score at least, 2013 was not a complete writeoff. His government set a foundation this year upon which to build, beginning with the preliminary free trade agreement with the European Union.
While CETA, as it’s known, was all but lost in the furor sparked by the Senate scandal, the deal is worth billions of dollars to the Canadian economy, removing virtually all tariffs on exports and imports and making Canadian products more competitive in Europe.
Tough selling the message
Harper’s problem is that these things are hardly the stuff that makes for great ad copy, let alone the kind of thing to convince Canadians to move beyond the raft of bad news that’s stalked him since May, when Wright’s largesse to Duffy first became public.
From that point on, question period and the media fixated on what the prime minister knew, when he knew it and how on earth he wasn’t told when so many of his underlings were aware of Wright’s decision.
Harper has skirted those questions, even in his year-end interviews.
If the Senate scandal overwhelmed the good news of 2013, it also had the effect of underplaying other problems, including unrest among some Conservative MPs who chafe at the Prime Minister’s Office telling them what to say and when they can say it.
The government is fighting a legal challenge initiated over Justice Marc Nadon’s qualifications to accept Harper’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nadon’s not sitting until the matter is resolved, leaving the country’s highest court short-handed at a time when judges of the lower courts are refusing to bow to the government’s victims' rights agenda.
The provinces are refusing to go along with the proposed Canada Job Grant, which would see Ottawa, the provinces and business kick in up to $5,000 each to train Canadians for skilled jobs that are now going unfilled by the thousands.
Job creation. Retirement security. Victims’ rights. These were the kinds of issues that once defined the Conservatives agenda. And who knows, they could again. But that depends on whether Harper can retake the agenda he lost in 2013 and show Canadians that the new year is more than just a turned page on the calendar.