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adam radwanski

Few politicians in Canada's history have taken a country by storm the way Justin Trudeau did in 2015. In the process, despite many Canadians feeling as though they had watched him grow up, we learned much about who he is and what makes him tick – and as we watch what sort of prime minister he turns out to be, some of those lessons might be instructive.

He's perfectly capable of thinking for himself

By the time this year's election campaign began, there was a common impression – fuelled by an array of factors that included his youthful appearance, his thin resumé before entering politics, his occasional tendency to make sophomoric jokes when he veered off script, his opponents' attack ads – that Mr. Trudeau was little more than a pretty face capable only of regurgitating lines fed to him by handlers.

His public performance during the second half of this year should alone have been enough to dispel that. He not only survived the campaign's unusually large number of debates – a trap set by his rivals in expectation of exposing him – but outperformed the other, more experienced leaders. During the campaign and since, he has put himself in town halls and other unscripted situations without making any memorable gaffes. Clearly, he is capable of thinking on his feet. Still, there remain plenty of whispers in Ottawa that he is mostly an avatar for powerful behind-the-scenes advisers. So it's worth noting that sources (including non-partisans) who have witnessed Mr. Trudeau interact with his officials behind the scenes describe a different dynamic – one in which he is very much in charge, taking and rejecting advice as he sees fit.

Mr. Trudeau has made little attempt to rein in the public profile of his officials, most notably principal secretary and close personal friend Gerald Butts, which helps explain some misperceptions. But portraying the PM as a puppet denies him due credit for what he has achieved – and potentially due blame for missteps to come.

He's energetic, verging on hyperactive

It appears Mr. Trudeau's natural state is being in motion – something that worked to his considerable advantage during the campaign. In ads, the Liberals always had him on the move, striking a contrast to older and less physically fit opponents. On tour, he kept a more vigorous schedule than the others and still looked freshest by campaign's end.

Now that he's in power, it could be more of a mixed blessing. The personality of a government flows from the person at the top, and so far the effects of Mr. Trudeau's contagious energy – reflected in extensive international travel and media appearances, bringing Parliament back before Christmas and an array of early policy rollouts – have helped the Liberals maintain momentum. But even some of his own staff acknowledge a danger in maintaining a frenetic pace, beyond the obvious risk of burnout (if not for him, then for people around him).

A government constantly bouncing from issue to issue may not get maximum political benefit from each one. More consequentially, for the rest of us, governments that try to do too many things at once – the last Liberal one under Paul Martin comes to mind – tend not to do enough of them well.

He surrounds himself with close allies

Some incoming prime ministers reach out to the private sector or otherwise outside their inner circles when they staff their offices. Mr. Trudeau is not one of them.

His top two officials in government, chief-of-staff Katie Telford and Mr. Butts, are friends who were at the helm of his campaign. Most other senior staff in the Prime Minister's Office also played major preelection roles. The advancement of those who previously gained his trust has extended into the bureaucracy as well, with the recent appointment of Matthew Mendelsohn – a former Ontario deputy minister involved in writing the Liberals' platform – as deputy clerk of the Privy Council, where he is to manage the delivery of the campaign promises he helped craft.

There is some obvious danger of not enough diverse voices behind the scenes, particularly since Mr. Trudeau's senior staff disproportionately hails from Ontario. But he appears to believe that preexisting comfort levels allow him to create a collaborative, free-flowing work environment.

He breaks from established positions when it suits him

The Liberals can insist all they want that the plan was to pledge during the campaign to run a budget deficit, or at least that the door was left open. But the fact is that Mr. Trudeau explicitly said publicly that he wouldn't run one, then pivoted in order to strike a contrast with the NDP.

His most significant post-election backtrack, on his pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year's end, is less cut and dried; the Liberals pursued that overly ambitious goal up to the point where it became clear it could not happen.

Because pragmatism is a Liberal hallmark, and for now strikes an appealing contrast to the previous government, Mr. Trudeau's flexibility currently shows few signs of being a liability. But for someone who promises to do things differently, it does carry some risk of being seen as a typical politician.

He has an edge

A few weeks before election day, Mr. Trudeau had what seems to have been a rather unpleasant phone chat with David Suzuki. By the iconic environmentalist's account, after Mr. Trudeau called him seeking an endorsement of his environmental agenda and he responded with a lecture on that agenda's flaws, the soon-to-be PM dismissed him with "I don't have to listen to this sanctimonious crap."

That might not have been entirely an isolated incident. Those familiar with Mr. Trudeau's interactions suggest that, for all his friendliness and accessibility, he has inherited a certain lack of patience with those he believes are unrealistic in their expectations, or are otherwise wasting his time.

"He's much more personable than his father," says one senior Liberal who dates back to the Pierre Trudeau era. "But he is a tough son of a bitch."

He's at his best when his back is against the wall

We'll never know how Mr. Trudeau would have performed in this year's campaign if he entered it leading in the polls, as he had for most of his time as Liberal Leader.

But as epitomized by his aggressive performance in the first leaders' debate, as well as taking risks such as striking a contrast to the NDP by promising to run a deficit, temporarily slipping to third place in the first half of 2015 (after getting a bit too comfortable with that lead) appeared to light a fire under him.

As those close to him will acknowledge, Mr. Trudeau is at little risk of suffering from a lack of confidence. But despite his fairly privileged path to power, his career to date – from winning an uphill battle to become an MP in Montreal's Papineau riding to his mythologized boxing match against then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau – suggests he does best when he sees himself as an underdog.

The lingering doubts about his substance could help explain why, as PM, he is still very much acting like someone with something to prove. The longer he is in office, particularly given his party's well-documented history of suffering from arrogance, the more he and those around him might have to work to keep that fire lit.