Justin Trudeau is what President Obama might have been, if hope and change had lasted.

Justin Trudeau Is What President Obama Might Have Been, if Hope and Change Had Lasted

Justin Trudeau Is What President Obama Might Have Been, if Hope and Change Had Lasted

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 11 2016 5:22 PM

Hope and Change, Canadian Style

For President Obama, hosting Justin Trudeau must have felt like seeing the Ghost of Elections Past.

Barack Obama and  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday in Washington.

Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

The first thing I noticed, standing on the White House lawn Thursday morning to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, was the absence of bagpipes.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Where the heck are the bagpipes? Don’t Canadians always travel with bagpipes? I know I do.

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The next thing in evidence: Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. In Canada, she is allowed to have a hyphenated last name. How late 20th century! The first lady with two last names hasn’t been permitted here in Washington since, well, you-know-who tried it.

But most of all, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that Trudeau is now in the exact place where President Obama used to be. And that both of them find this very confusing. Many, many pixels will die today, skimming over the surface of Trudeau’s visit. His good looks (which are good) and the baby toss on the White House lawn (which was delicious) and the Canadian designers sported by Michelle Obama and Grégoire-Trudeau at the state dinner. And also baby Hadrien (because swoon). But all of that is beside the real point. Which isn’t so much that the two men are in love, as that Obama gets to see what might have been, had he been allowed to just be.

You can joke all you want about the budding bromance between the two heads of state, but what I saw and heard in Obama’s speeches welcoming Trudeau—whose hopey-changey message must feel like a visit from the Ghost of Elections Past to Obama—is a sense that it’s still possible to believe in democracy, that politics is a noble vocation, and that good can still come of elected office, at least if your name is Trudeau and not Obama.

Whether this is about race, or political legacy, or the difference between Canadians and Americans isn’t clear to me. But Trudeau swept into elected office on the same enormous wave of optimism and tolerance that brought Obama to the White House in 2008. Except the Canadians gave Trudeau a chance. When Trudeau won election back in October, he made reference in his victory speech to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the “sunny ways” approach Laurier tried to bring to bear on an ugly national mood of religious and linguistic intolerance that was threatening to pull Canada apart at the time. On election night, Trudeau spoke of optimism and respect. “Wilfrid Laurier talked about sunny ways. He knew that politics can be a positive force, and that is the message Canadians sent today,” Trudeau told supporters in Montreal. “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways. This is what positive politics can do.”

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In referencing “sunny ways,” Trudeau was responding at least in part to his predecessor Stephen Harper’s ugly election-year politicization of Canadian Muslims and the niqab. Before the election, Harper had made a point of saying that Muslim women should not wear the religious face covering at their citizenship ceremonies because it’s “offensive” and it’s “not how we do things here.” Trudeau was quick to condemn Harper’s decision to attack minority women, arguing right before the election that “no election win [is] worth pitting Canadians against Canadians.”

While the U.S. election of 2016 plays out as a festival of misogyny, Trudeau quietly seated a Cabinet last fall that was half women, explaining when queried, “because it’s 2015.” His Cabinet also includes two Sikhs, an Afghan refugee, and a native aboriginal leader. All of this was accomplished without anyone getting punched in the face because of the color of his or her skin.

And baby panda porn notwithstanding, Trudeau’s greatest media moment since winning election happened when—after pledging to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees as the rest of the world was closing its doors—he met the first batch of refugee families at the airport as they arrived and helped them find proper winter coats. In explaining his stance on the Syrian families, Trudeau said that the manner in which Canada treats refugees “defines us as a nation.” By way of contrast, Obama proposed admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, a move that met vigorous political resistance and was countered by GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslim immigrants for the foreseeable future.   

How incredibly strange it must be for Obama to watch his neighbor to the north triumph on a message of tolerance and multiculturalism, feminism and pluralism, environmental protection and military modesty, just as the GOP debates rise to almost Popeye levels of “bomb the shit out of them” braggadocio and as Trump rallies become the newest place to go in America to get punched and shoved on account of your political views.

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Having watched Obama watching Trudeau this week, saying all the things Obama once said—at his victory speech, Trudeau said his Liberal majority government stood as proof that “positive, optimistic” politics are not just a “naïve dream”—I’m not clear whether he thinks Trudeau is lucky, or charmed, or merely being set up for years of face-punching to come. As the president has jokingly warned young Trudeau many times, this is a job that will turn your hair white. There’s a hidden barb in there—it goes, “They are going to kill you, Little Man.” The hidden punchline is: “Maybe at the end of your term in office, everyone in your country will be clamoring to move here.”

But mostly, I heard genuine affection and respect and a longing to return to a time when hope and change weren’t obsolete campaign slogans. Instead of looking exhausted, Obama almost looked energized. In his toast to Trudeau at the formal state dinner on Thursday night, Obama almost choked up as he talked about his children and why service matters:

And this spirit reminds us of why we’re all here—why we serve. Justin, Sophie, your children are still young. They are adorable, and they still let you hug them. When we first spoke on the phone after your election, we talked not only as president and prime minister, but also as fathers. When I was first elected to this office, Malia was 10 and Sasha was just 7. And they grow up too fast. This fall, Malia heads off to college. And I’m starting to choke up. So I’m going to wind this—it was in my remarks—and I didn’t—I can’t do it. It’s hard.
But there is a point to this, though, and that is that we’re not here for power. We’re not here for fame or fortune. We’re here for our kids. We’re here for everybody’s kids—to give our sons and our daughters a better world. To pass to them a world that’s a little safer, and a little more equal, and a little more just, a little more prosperous so that a young person growing up in Chicago or Montreal or on the other side of the world has every opportunity to make of their life what they will, no matter who they are or what they look like, or how they pray or who they love.

In his own remarks, Trudeau, who came of age in the reflected northern light of his father—Canada’s most famous and flamboyant leader—made a point of honoring Obama’s daughters’ grace in the cruel limelight:

I admire you very much, both of you, for your extraordinary strength and your grace, through what is a remarkable childhood and young adulthood that will give you extraordinary strength and wisdom beyond your years for the rest of your life. The one thing that you have received from your extraordinary parents is the tools to be able to handle the challenges and the opportunities in front of you. So thank you very much for joining us tonight.

Maybe the most striking difference between Obama and Trudeau isn’t just in the color of their skin and the fact that Trudeau hails from a political dynasty, which in combination have allowed Canadians to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s that Trudeau is the prime minister of a country whose citizens already think their country is kind of awesome and making Canada stay kind of awesome is more than enough. I’d wager that when he looks at his “brother,” Justin Trudeau, Obama sees what might have been if more Americans could have been convinced to believe that “sunny ways” could have been more than just a slogan—that it had a chance to really come true.