Obama passes the progressive torch to Trudeau

In Washington to stand with Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau is celebrated by progressives as the future of their political ideals.

U.S. president invites comparisons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is named a potential 'paragon' of progress

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the Canada 2020 and the Center for American Progress luncheon gathering in Washington on Friday, the final day of his official U.S. visit. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Attempts to compare the 23rd prime minister of Canada and the 44th president of the United States are fraught, but it is at least noteworthy when it is the latter who is making the comparison.

"He campaigned on a message of hope and of change. His positive and optimistic vision is inspiring young people. At home, he's governing with a commitment to inclusivity and equality. On the world stage, his country is leading on climate change and cares deeply about development," Barack Obama said Thursday, standing in the White House's Rose Garden with the prime minister to his left.

"So, from my perspective, what's not to like?"

The outgoing president's earlier interactions with the new prime minister were reported to have "an air of mentorship" and, for all of the stylistic and political commonalities cited by Obama, it is easy to imagine why the president might take a particular interest in the prime minister (and perhaps even the prime minister's success).

And any hint that a torch was being passed was encouraged a day later when the Center for American Progress (a Washington, D.C., outfit committed to fostering and encouraging progressive politicians and policies) and Canada 2020 (a similar Ottawa outfit) released a collection of short essays on the future of global progressivism.

Pleasantries exchanged, but not without a few friendly jabs 1:30

'Paragons of the progressive movement'

"The world stands on the cusp of a new, global progressive movement," the centre's Neera Tanden and Matt Browne write in the foreword, perhaps a little optimistically. "People around the globe are dissatisfied with their governments and eager for change, and many have turned once more to progressivism."

Two examples are cited as evidence: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

"We are convinced," they write, "that Trudeau and Renzi will become paragons of the progressive movement."

Of Trudeau, Browne later explained in an interview that, "[Progressives] certainly feel that his arrival on the political scene has been a huge shot in the arm to the global progressive movement and they see him as a linchpin, if not the future leader, of that movement."

That he is a charismatic and handsome young man helps, but it is apparently the values he espouses that matter most.

So for everything else Trudeau might be said to represent, there is now also this: poster boy for the global progressive movement. Or at least one understanding of the progressive movement.

The Third Way

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi: with Trudeau, one of the next leaders of the Third Way? (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

The progressivism imagined here is traced to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and the so-called Third Way, their late-1990s attempt to split the difference between conservativism and socialism while remaining just to the left of the political centre.

"The centre ground of politics — in Europe, including the United Kingdom — is in danger. It doesn't usually make the most noise. It operates best in the quiet chambers of analysis and reflection. It seeks to build consensus rather than exploit rifts. But it is still where a large part of the public wishes to congregate," Blair writes in his contribution. "They urgently need the leadership of people like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and, most recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There couldn't be a better time to renew the Third Way."

(Renzi, the youngest prime minister in Italian history, has quibbled with austerity, pursued electoral and Senate reform and evenly divided his first cabinet between men and women. If he let his closely cut hair grow out a bit, the similarities would be spooky.)

Mixed legacies

Note that while Blair's Labour party has turned, awkwardly, to the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, Trudeau's Liberals have turned to Blair's delivery guru, Michael Barber, to figure out how government can be made more competent.

There are progressives who will blanche at the notion of centrism. And this will all drive Canadian New Democrats to fits.

Blair and Clinton left disputed legacies (as a general rule, their potential successors are advised to avoid getting involved with either a ground invasion of Iraq or an intimate relationship with an office intern). And at some point in this sort of discussion it will inevitably be noted that, after a starry arrival, Barack Obama did not fulfil the promise of his election. 

There's a danger that people will begin pulling back their support for policies that stimulate and support growth if we don't figure out a way of including them in the prosperity that's created by that growth- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

That Obama failed to single-handedly cure the sickness that continues to imperil the life of American democracy is indisputable (though that much obscures what is a defensible set of accomplishments on the economy, health care and climate change). But so far as Justin Trudeau can hope to advance his similar agenda, he is not encumbered by the sort of legislative opposition that frustrated Obama.

In his own contribution to the discussion, Trudeau offered four aims for progressive governance: economic inclusion, fostering innovation, open and transparent government and diversity (the latter seeming like a defiant rebuttal to the fears that grip Europe and the United States).

In all, Trudeau may end up facing doubts about both government and liberalized economic policy.

"If there's a rise of people being angry," Trudeau told an audience on Friday afternoon, "you can't just tell them they're wrong, you have to look at why that anxiety's there, where is that fear, where is that anger coming from … People are worried that the deal that was made with governments of different stripes over the past few decades, that people would support pro-growth policies — tax competitiveness, fiscal responsibility, global investment, trade — these things would be good for growth and they would be good for everyone.

"There's a danger that people will begin pulling back their support for policies that stimulate and support growth if we don't figure out a way of including them in the prosperity that's created by that growth … The responsibility isn't to say, 'oh, there's a better way to do it,' the responsibility is to say, 'oh, we can get out of the challenges you're facing if we pull together.'"

This segued to an economic defence of bringing in Syrian refugees.

Economic threats

Trudeau surely benefits from a relatively centrist political culture in Canada, but any failure to carry the argument will open opportunities for critics on both the left and right.

Conservative MP Ed Fast characterized Trudeau's Washington visit as "photo ops" and "vanity projects," suggesting the prime minister should focus on job creation at home instead. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

And back in Ottawa, there are visible threats.

On Friday morning, Statistics Canada had reported a loss of 2,300 jobs across the country in February. "Rather than focusing on photo ops with President Obama and vanity projects outside of Canada," Conservative critic Ed Fast sighed for reporters, "the prime minister should be providing a jobs plan that creates jobs and inspires Canada's job creators."

Later, in question period, the Official Opposition made its daily moan about deficits and debt.

It was a willingness to run a deficit that outflanked the NDP for the title of progressive alternative and that deficit is now supposed to do something about the jobs. But fiscal irresponsibility—the eternal weakness of the progressive promise—is a charge the Conservatives are eager to make. And deficits can strain credibility and compel difficult choices.

More important, perhaps nothing redeems or undermines a government's agenda as much as prosperity (or the distinct lack thereof).

Next Tuesday, with its first federal budget, the Trudeau Liberals get to go at such issues. And in doing so they get to really start building an agenda that can be measured against the ideals.

U.S president Obama welcomes Justin Trudeau with a warm words the new prime minister. 1:47

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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