Is Obama a Closet Conservative?
Canadians going gaga over Barack Obama need to get a grip. He is not going to change the world. He is not going to right all wrongs. Indeed, his whirlwind visit to Ottawa this week underlines the new U.S. president's innate conservatism.
Take the one concrete measure that came out of his Thursday meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper - a Canada-U.S. decision to look into carbon capture as a solution to global warming.
This does not signify Harper's willingness to endorse an Obama-sponsored get-tough approach to climate change. Rather, it represents the opposite - Obama's willingness to sign on to Harper's search (much criticized by Canadian environmentalists) for a miraculous new technology that would allow oil refineries and coal plants to keep polluting and then permanently store the resultant carbon emissions underground.
The U.S. president, in a veiled criticism of the Kyoto Accord on climate change, also noted that no solution to global warming can be found unless China and India are drawn in.
This has been Harper's position all along. It was also that of former U.S. president George W. Bush.
None of this is to say that Obama is Bush redux. He isn't. But the differences between the two have been greatly overdrawn.
The war on terror: Obama isn't backing away from Bush's decision to define terrorism as war, a crucial label that gives the president constitutional authority to operate with few Congressional constraints. The key difference is that the new president wants to shift the focus of that war to Afghanistan.
True, he has changed its parameters by ordering the Guantanamo Bay prison closed. He's also banned the use of torture by U.S. officials.
But at the same time, his administration has quietly indicated that it plans to continue the practice of so-called extraordinary rendition: capturing suspected terrorists anywhere in the world and shipping them off to countries such as Egypt to be tortured.
And Obama is continuing to use national security as an excuse to keep those that have been illegally incarcerated from getting redress in U.S. courts.
As for Afghanistan, Obama is working on a new strategy that he'll reveal soon. We'll find out then what he wants Canada to do.
But, like Bush, he is continuing to widen the war by bombing suspected Taliban targets in Pakistan.
The economic crisis: Obama's $787 billion (U.S.) stimulus package of tax cuts and government spending is almost certainly different from anything Bush might have devised.
But a parallel $2 trillion (U.S.) attempt to solve the financial crisis is more Bushian. While Obama is willing to lavish unprecedented amounts of public money on the U.S. financial system, like Bush he seems congenitally unwilling to give taxpayers a role in determining how these funds are used.
Instead, his various schemes - including this week's $275 billion (U.S.) mortgage bailout plan - involve attempts to bribe private financiers, through so-called incentive payments, to act in the public interest.
Obama is even planning to offer billions in subsidies to the very hedge funds that provoked the current crisis, in the hope that this time they'll use the money well.
Oddly enough, even Harper's Conservative government is more willing to endorse direct state intervention in financial markets. It has given $200 billion to crown corporations such as Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation, Export Development Canada and the Business Development Bank to do just that.
Canada-U.S. relations: The basic bargain made after 9/11 still holds - Ottawa takes account of American security concerns; in return, Washington recognizes Canada's need for access to U.S. markets.
That's what Harper was talking about when, at a press conference Thursday, he veered into an impassioned soliloquy on Canada's commitment to border security.
Obama says he still wants to write labor and environmental safeguards into the main North American Free Trade Agreement. We'll see how far he pushes that. It's worth noting, though, that Harper has dropped the apocalyptic language he once used when this topic came up.
For Harper, however, the real benefit of an Obama presidency goes beyond specifics such as trade. It is that Obama's popularity here makes it easier for his government to align itself with the U.S. on an entire range of issues - from drug regulation to defense.
Indeed, those who used to call the prime minister a Bush sycophant missed the point. As this week's events demonstrate, Harper is willing to fawn over any U.S. president.
Like his predecessors Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, this prime minister wants Canada cemented more firmly into America's orbit - regardless of who is in the White House - in the hope that this will produce economic rewards.
Now, thanks to Obama's charm, the adoration of the public and Canada's star-struck media, that task is considerably easier.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday and Saturday.
© 2009 Toronto Star