What Obama’s Victory Means For Canada

What Obama's Victory Means for Canada

by Leslie Campbell
Embassy Magazine
Published November 6 2008

WASHINGTON–In the days leading up to Barack Obama's ascendant, poetic victory it seemed there was no other topic of conversation in Washington, no other distraction, no other occupation, except speculation about the election and Obama's chances.

For weeks, Obama supporters only dared to hope, to whisper the possibility of victory, but as election day grew closer, confidence grew, predictions became more bold, and grins became wider. For Republicans, glum resignation gave way to acceptance and finally to modest excitementeven the most ardent Republicans admitted grudging admiration for Obama and his remarkable discipline, and most welcomed the spectre of the first African-American president.

As a Canadian political animal residing in the U.S. and being privileged to observe the election from an inside perch that included exposure to senior advisers to Obama and John McCain and attendance at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the experience of the seemingly endless campaign was, while occasionally tedious, more invigorating, enlightening and even profound. Forget the clichs about American politicsthis was a political event like no other.

The election was substantive. Both candidates and parties expressed detailed policies and the exchanges between presidential candidates were almost always grounded in genuine policy and leadership differences. While there were some high-profile attacks, the political discourse was dominated by debates about differing economic visions, health care plans and blueprints for ending the Iraq war.

Election-year politics were intense. While the presidential contest received most of the international press, the local airwaves were filled with news of lesser racesMaryland Democratic States Attorney Frank Kratovil taking a traditional Republican House seat in rural Maryland, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner romping to victory over Republican Jim Gilmore for an open Senate seat, and local ballot questions on slot machines and early voting, not to mention dozens of city, town and county elections.

American politics is engaging. Hardly a week went by without an invitation to a fundraiser, a policy debate or a roundtable. Press events were constant, volunteer opportunities rampant. Newspaper coverage was voluminous and exhaustive. Blogs exploded and punditry flourished.

American politics is sophisticated. Anyone who gave Barack Obama as little as $10 (the average donation was less than $100) or signed up for an email update became a part of the Obama universe. Barack Obama's messages would arrive, sometimes hourly, giving updates on the candidate's every move, every utterance, and every policy nuance. Web ads, viral videos, Facebook and every other possible communication tool were exploited.

The election campaign was ubiquitous. Buying a coffee at 7-Eleven meant casting a straw vote by choosing a McCain or Obama cup. School bus drivers polled kids about electoral preferences. Cable news outlets became all politics, all the time, gaining huge ratings as a result. On election eve, thousands of District of Columbia residents gathered, spontaneously, in front of the White House to celebrate the Obama victory by banging pots and pans and lighting fireworks.

Election day was profound. Few could fail to be moved by the historic election of an African-American, the sadness of the untimely death of Obama's grandmother a day prior to his victory, the emotion of the tens of thousands in Grant Park in Chicago, and the graciousness and sincerity of John McCain's losing address. McCain's speech praising Obama for winning “by inspiring hope in millions of Americans” will become the standard by which all future political concessions are judged.

Election night was one of those moments where everyone was conscious of witnessing history. When Barack Obama said in his victory address that the “true genius of America is that America can change,” he meant not only the change from eight years of George Bush and two unfinished wars, but the election of an African-American man with a foreign-born father and a clear repudiation of the excesses of both the immediate and the long past.

While the full story of the election is yet to be written, several impressions from election night stood out. Sixty-six per cent of voters under 30 years of age voted for Obama. Latino voters, even in Florida, voted for Obama. Demographic changes in the westthe movement of retirees from the east, high-tech industries attracting highly educated workers, and new immigration patterns, threaten to turn states like Montana, Colorado and Nevada solidly Democratic over the next few years. Voter turnout, 66 per cent in early estimates, surpassed that of Canada, erasing a long-standing point of Canadian smugness.

The Republican vote has become “monochromatic”, in the words of one CNN pundit, largely confined to white voters in Confederate or western states, and, in a political turnaround, working-class voters, as the affluent are lured by the socially liberal Democrats.

What it all means for Canada is hard to garner definitively. Democrats are, by nature, multilateralist, which should play to Canada's strengths and preferences in the international arena. Obama will seek to repair international alliances and Canada's commitment in Afghanistan should strengthen our hand in Washington.

On the other hand, there may be a protectionist instinct in Congress that could find a sympathetic ear in Obama. Reports that member of Congress Rahm Emmanuel may be chief of staff should ease NAFTA fears as Emmanuel was the senior White House staffer who helped president Clinton sell the trade agreement in 1993.

Homeland Securitythe issue and the government departmentwill be an early priority for Obama. Since the department was created under Bush, it has never undergone a presidential transition. Obama reportedly had a one-hour meeting on homeland security on election day, demonstrating the centrality of the issue.

Under the Bush regime, Homeland Security has been the bane of Canada's existence, restricting border access, hindering trade and casting suspicion on Canada's immigration and asylum policies. Canada must get to Obama early to press the point that we're part of the solution, not the problem.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama's election will cause a yearning for something greater, more uplifting, in Canadian politics. By supporting Obama, a new generation got involved and discovered, for the first time, that their efforts, their votes, can lead to change and to hope. It won't be long before Canadian youth demand from their politicians a movement that is uplifting and hopefulunlike the current state of Canadian politics.