What Obama’s hesitation means for Harper

Wells: President may not be interested in bilateral deal-making

What Obama’s hesitation means for HarperOne hundred days into his presidency—a landmark that will pass while this issue of Maclean’s is on newsstands—it’s easier to measure what Barack Obama won’t do, or what he hesitates to do, than to list all he has done. He’s been busy. But his hesitations may wind up mattering more than his bold actions.

Obama’s is already a consequential presidency. By moving to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and abandoning torture he’s shown he’s no George W. Bush. By embracing Europe, tolerating Hugo Chávez and trying to thaw relations with Cuba and Iran, he has shown the world a more conciliatory face. And by hammering open the spending taps, responding to a crisis of easy private money by inaugurating an era of easy public money, he has launched a thousand megaprojects.

There’s a lot to admire in each of those moves, but they have something in common. Together they form a politics of plenty: they are not particularly concerned with counting costs. Obama doesn’t like to choose among nations. He doesn’t like to choose among government projects.

I mean no criticism of his decision to forswear torture, which to me is simple justice and long overdue. But it can’t be counted a bold strategy, because torture doesn’t exactly have a lot of friends.

What it did have, for years, was practitioners in secret prisons around the world, and legal theorists and political enablers in Washington. What would be bold would be to investigate and prosecute them. But Obama has been extraordinarily reluctant to prosecute either torture’s practitioners or enablers. That would be divisive. And as we move from the list of things Obama has done to the list of things he resists, we see a reluctance to take action that would be both decisive and divisive.

This is easy to understand now, but it will be significant over the course of Obama’s presidency. He likes to create winners, not losers. So he has embraced policies that have no fight in them and backed off policies where a fight would be inevitable. He has given up on renegotiating NAFTA. He’s dropped plans to reduce farm subsidies. He wanted to resuscitate an assault-weapons ban that died under George W. Bush, but some in Congress pushed back and he has dropped the idea.

This pattern suggests a generous instinct and an aversion to conflict. Neither is fatal in the short term. Both offer a refreshing change from Obama’s predecessor. And because his government spends far more than it asks of Americans, Obama is well-placed to buy a lot of change. But, at best, it leaves open the question of whether he will have it in him to keep pushing when opposition is focused, loud, and well-funded.

Health care will be one such file, but it’s mostly a matter between Americans, and Obama’s success or failure needn’t concern us. But climate change will be another, and it is at the centre of relations between our two countries.

Stephen Harper has handled the early steps of his relationship with Obama well. Precedent suggested there’d be trouble here. As Lawrence Martin pointed out in his book, The Presidents and The Prime Ministers, party differences have usually caused cross-border trouble. Kennedy hated Diefenbaker. Trudeau couldn’t abide Reagan. More recently, Chrétien made real efforts to get off on the right foot with Bush, but the relationship soon turned toxic.

Harper has found, in Obama, a President who is eager to make friends, but he has also played the relationship smartly. He prefers to lead with big global issues where the two countries share a common viewpoint, like Afghanistan and free trade, instead of concentrating on bilateral irritants that magnify discord. Harper’s eager courting of U.S. journalists is easy to mock—I know, I’ve done it—but it will raise Canada’s profile in Washington while important decisions are made.

But a kind word will only get you so far. Harper has made energy and the environment the cornerstones of the Canada-U.S. relationship. The idea is that we would be part of some continental plan to cap and trade carbon emissions, in return for protecting privileged American access to Canadian energy exports—and protecting the U.S. market for Alberta’s oil sands.

Unfortunately, just about every element of this project is turning out to be a farce. First, there’s no such thing as privileged access to oil because oil is sold in a fluid global market, so we have nothing in particular to offer. Second, a President who can’t stop making friends has no particular interest in bilateral deal-making with Canada when he has far more important partners to chase when it comes to regulating emissions. China, first of all. Then Europe. Then us, way behind.

Most important, it’s not clear this President can ever meaningfully regulate emissions, because that would inflict concentrated pain on powerful interests. So far that’s the kind of fight Obama likes to back away from.

Harper has executed more than his share of political about-faces, and his approach to climate change after Obama’s election looked like another. But that may be an illusion. Bush was uninterested in reducing carbon emissions. Obama may be unable. For Harper, hitching his wagon to the second is just as easy as to the first.

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