Toronto Star

In Ottawa, talking to Americans is back in vogue

- Susan Delacourt

More than a decade ago, comedian Rick Mercer had a huge hit with a feature called “Talking to Americans.”

It rested on a simple premise — throwing a microphone and a TV camera in front of average Americans and finding out, often hilariousl­y, how little they knew about Canada.

Mercer once even tried to get George W. Bush to refer to prime minister Jean Chrétien as “Jean Poutine.” Bush, who was then not yet president, didn’t take the bait, but he did make reference to the skit on a subsequent official visit to Canada.

Mercer wound down the feature after Sept. 11, 2011, when the terrorist strikes in the U.S. made it far less funny to poke fun at Americans.

Today, in 2015, “Talking to Americans” would probably still be less funny, but for different reasons.

After watching the descent of American politics to often cartoon-caricature levels in the past decade — from “truthers” to “birthers” to Donald Trump — Canadians are probably far less surprised to learn that Americans have some major knowledge gaps about their northern neighbours. As we’ve seen, many Americans don’t even know where their current president, Barack Obama, was born.

Against that subtle but significan­t shift in our expectatio­ns around Americans’ awareness of Canada, it was interestin­g to see the many examples this week of the connection­s between Obama and Justin Trudeau’s new government. No one could accuse the current American government of blissful ignorance about Canada or vice versa. Some serious “talking to Americans” has been underway by Trudeau’s team for some time. While Obama and Trudeau held their first official, bilateral meeting only this week, evidence already abounds of ties that have been built between the U.S. Democrats and the federal Liberals.

On the morning after the Oct. 19 election, the Politico website in the U.S. took ample note of developmen­ts in Canada. In Mike Allen’s “Playbook” column in Politico, three of Obama’s former strategist­s got a shout-out for their role in advising the Liberal campaign.

“The lead American consultant for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada, the upset winner in federal elections last night, was Precision Strategies (partners Stephanie Cutter, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Teddy Goff),” Allen wrote. “Since 2013, Precision has helped the LPC and Team Trudeau map the path to victory in specific ridings (precincts) across the country — data work, paid digital ads, field, strategy.”

In Washington this week, Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, was holding meetings with U.S. officials to lay the groundwork for a planned official summit between Trudeau and Obama early in the new year.

Butts posted a picture of himself on his Facebook page crouching beside Obama’s Portuguese water dog, Bo. “Was introduced to a very famous (and adorable) dog today,” Butts wrote in the caption to the photo, taken against the backdrop of the Eisenhower building for White House staff.

A day later, Butts was onstage at the Westin hotel in Ottawa, welcom- ing Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod to a speech at a conference organized by the Canada 2020 think-tank. Butts and Axelrod talked of their long history, dating back to some work Axelrod did for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty between 2000 and 2002.

Axelrod left no doubt with the audience that Obama and the Democrats had been keeping a keen eye turned to the Trudeau campaign and victory. Though he indicated he wasn’t speaking for the president, Axelrod said: “I’m sure he observed the election here from afar as I did, with admiration . . . It was a campaign of high goals and ambitions for the country. It was a progressiv­e campaign. I’m sure he admired the campaign that was run.”

In a speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session, Axelrod warned — from Obama’s hardearned experience — of the freight of high expectatio­ns and how governing is far less easy to navigate than campaignin­g.

“In campaigns, you can largely control your own narrative . . . It’s so much easier to tell your story because you get to pick and choose how you engage and when you engage. When you’re the leader of a country, you don’t have that luxury.”

He also warned that Obama wouldn’t love every move Trudeau makes — a timely warning, given that the U.S. and Canada are developing sharply divergent views on how quickly to accept Syrian refugees through their borders. “But it seems to me that there’s a basis of good, honest, open, collegial relationsh­ip here,” he said.

Conservati­ves like to point out that there’s a double standard in Canada about cosiness with Americans; it seems to be OK with Democrats, not so OK when it comes to Republican­s. That is a complicate­d truth.

What is clear is that Trudeau and Obama, even before their meeting this week, already had built some interestin­g connection­s — and that talking to Americans is no longer comedy but the new normal for a new Liberal government.

 ?? FRED CHARTRAND/CANADA 2020 ?? David Axelrod, former strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks at a conference hosted by the Canada 2020 think-tank in Ottawa this week.
FRED CHARTRAND/CANADA 2020 David Axelrod, former strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks at a conference hosted by the Canada 2020 think-tank in Ottawa this week.
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