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Obama's Legacy Efforts Recall Pierre Trudeau — And That's Not A Compliment

With a hostile Congress, Barack Obama is the lamest of lame ducks in his final year as president. Having squandered the Senate and House of Representatives, he’s effectively blocked on naming a new Supreme Court justice and closing the Guantanamo prison. He can write executive orders on immigration, but the Supreme Court keeps throwing them back at him.

The orders that get through the Court will be overturned unless Hillary Clinton is elected (and avoids being indicted). He can pontificate, but the audience is just the loyalist cadre that delivered him to this spot. His legacy— so important to progressives who think him a historic figure— rests on shifting sand.

As Obama heads off into his Hollywood afterlife— and historians judge his record—it’s interesting to note the symmetries to Pierre Trudeau whose legacy phase hobbled his Liberal Party for decades. Both Obama and Trudeau were seen as transformative figures by progressives in their country. In Trudeau’s case he was seen as English Canada’s conduit to Quebec’s growing independence movement in the ‘60s. A federalist, he was deified in Anglo Canada after braving separatist rock throwers during the St. Jean Baptiste parade in 1968. 

But instead of bridging the gap while in office, Trudeau’s approach in Quebec brought the country to the brink of two referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Where once his Libs won nearly every Quebec seat, Trudeau orchestrated the rise of the Bloc Quebecois as the dominant party of French Canada. It took fellow Quebecker Jean Chretien to calm the separatist impulse in Quebec in 2000 with the Clarity Act.

While fumbling the unity file, Trudeau similarly alienated the west of the country. His ill-conceived National Energy Program ravaged Alberta’s economy for a decade. Until Justin Trudeau made a small breakthrough in the 2015 election, the Liberal Party was virtually dead in the region for 40 years thanks to Justin’s Papa. Only the loyal Maritime and Ontario urban base kept the Libs alive in the desert.

The parallel to Obama is obvious. Elected under a promise of bridging the grievances between black and white communities in America, Obama did the inverse. His tendentious lecturing on race (and by members of his administration) drove the wedge ever deeper. Taking sides in every high-profile racial incident empowered race hustlers like Al Sharpton while vilifying conciliators in the black community such as Ben Carson.

It’s no exaggeration to say that antagonism between the races has rarely been this corrosive since the 1960s. Donald Trump, the rude bull in the Republican china shop, owes much of his rise to Obama’s polarizing racial style. 

Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba is reminiscent of Trudeau’s flippant bromance with Castro in the ‘70s. In the Obama/ Trudeau model, diplomacy is for legacy purposes; the national interest is always subordinate to the chic impulse of the day on the left.

Their personalities are eerily similar. Aloof, arrogant and unconcerned with detail, they are darlings of the elite intellectual silos of the coasts. Trudeau flipped the finger at farmers, while Obama muttered about people who clung to guns and religion. Their affection for moral relativism allowed them to alienate most of their nation’s friends while courting scoundrels like Fidel Castro.

In one of his pacifist moments, Trudeau — who spent WW-II riding his motorcycle around Montreal while wearing a German helmet — tried to merge the branches of the military, squashing a century of tradition. He was forced to relent after veterans went ballistic. Obama’s treatments of military veterans is one of the embarrassments of his administration.

Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba is reminiscent of Trudeau’s flippant bromance with Castro in the ‘70s. In the Obama/ Trudeau model, diplomacy is for legacy purposes; the national interest is always subordinate to the chic impulse of the day on the left.

Their foreign policy, too, was a game of hokey-pokey. The left foot in. The left foot out. Shake it all about. Friends are confused and enemies laugh in derision at the hand-wringing efforts to create empathy in the Third World. Gradually, both Canada and the U.S. found themselves marginalized by a world unimpressed with ennui politics. (Anyone playing poker with Trudeau and Obama would make a fortune— they’d fold a hand at the slightest resistance.)

Finally, both fumbled their national economies. Trudeau’s flirtation with trendy state intervention in the economy flopped. Pierre loved debt the way Ellen Degeneres loves dancing. Tax raises stymied investment. Wage and price controls were ineffective. His expansion of government bloat necessitated Paul Martin’s draconian budget measures to control the national debt in the 1990s. 

While it’s still early to judge Obama’s economic impact, some facts are clear. Workplace participation has plummeted. The post-2008 recovery has been tepid, half the usual rate. Capital flees the U.S. and corporations stay on the sidelines rather than tangle with the over-regulated state built by the Democrats and their public-service union donors. Launched in a folly of lies and incompetence, ObamaCare will likely not survive in its president form even if Hillary becomes president.

When he claimed credit for slowing government spending, Obama was reminded it took the GOP sequestration to do so. Despite his attempts to hobble traditional energy, Obama grudgingly saw the profitable fracking revolution float his leaky boat for much of his two terms. Even his other purported success— the stock market— is roiling as he prepares for what will be a cozy retirement amidst the beautiful people. 

Trudeau’s reputation is getting a second look under son Justin, now the PM. It’s not nice. Will Obama get a revision in the future if Malia or Sasha takes up politics? If Donald Trump can win the GOP nomination, anything’s possible. He can just hope history is kinder to him than it is to Pierre Trudeau. 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy

Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).