Never before has the White House emerged as the principal protectionist actor in a trade dispute with Canada. Other presidents have been negligent or looked the other way when legislators or state politicians growled: “America First!” Yet here we are, after 25 years of mutual progress under a comprehensive free trade agreement, facing a President entirely free — and seemingly inclined — to disrespect the American logic and agreed rules of the biggest bilateral trade treaty in the world, not in concert with but in defiance of both houses of the US Congress.
Not since the cocky final year of Jack Kennedy’s presidency has a US president come as close to getting personal — and nasty — toward his Canadian ally.
Could Obama’s looming inclination to kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline defeat Harper in next year’s election? Could Obama actually scratch his seven-year itch?
Excuse me; I’m getting personal.
Sure, I’d be dismayed if my favorite conservative Democrat sided with the Save-the-World-from-Canada capitalists in California and the Tea Party Democrats who think gumming up markets generally is a progressive idea.
The mystery of the moment, however, is whether Obama is prepared to humiliate Harper and whether Harper must look the other way or should personally start building a decent line of defense, especially in Ontario, against a well-liked lame duck President.
One decision that giant Ontario can’t avoid is deciding who wins Canada’s next election. Prime ministers usually come from elsewhere but they’re all made here. And as attentive followers of American tastes and power politics, Ontario’s influential voices want to be seen as favoring prime ministers that don’t irritate America’s giants, especially presidents without Southern accents.
(Questioning the soundness of White House Texans has helped elect prime ministers. On the other hand, being dismissed by Obama’s White House could have cost Harper his majority in 2011. Happily, on every dangerous file from spying on fellow citizens to fighting the Great Recession and using military force overseas, Harper’s been Obama’s helpmate — a leaden Joe Biden, who also knows he has no votes of his own.)
Changing the subject has been Harper’s preferred way of responding to trouble, but will it do if Keystone is formally rejected? Must the old rules against an aggressive Canadian Prime Minister be honored in this case?
Failing big in front of the world on a “no brainer” isn’t what competent leaders do. Harper must already see that the likeable Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and the idling Laurentian machine will place all the blame on Harper, the Climate Denier who’s now doing to Canada’s brand what Rob Ford did to Toronto.
Harper would be well advised to more vigorously and persistently defend Canada’s position in speeches and in interviews here, and, in the United States, attack the new protectionism swarming around the President. Shrugging that Obama won’t be President forever won’t reduce the damage; it won’t diminish Obama’s now-inflated credibility in Canada.
Obama can’t open US national parks to oil and natural gas fracking projects, permit soaring US coal and oil exports, promise to keep prices down at the pump, and, at the same time, precipitate a possible energy investment recession in Canada to pad his green presidential legacy — unless Canada turns the other cheek.
New York Times columnist David Brooks hints at what’s happening to Barack Obama’s reputation within the burgeoning moderate center of American politics. If moderates in America’s leadership are openly questioning Barack Obama’s moderation, surely moderate Ontario will give their Prime Minister a hearing as the champion of a trade union under assault in the White House.