President Barack Obama will be playing host to a state dinner March 10 for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The event will receive mountains of media coverage in Canada that will stand in reverse relationship to the event's importance.
Mr. Obama is already a lame-duck president, and getting lamer every day. Yes, of course, he is still president, but every president's capacity to get things done at home weakens in the final year. Moreover, such is the impasse in Congress that Mr. Obama can forget about achieving anything of legislative importance.
He remains commander-in-chief and architect of foreign policy. And he can use his authority to issue executive orders, bypassing Congress as has been his wont, as happened when Mr. Obama killed the Keystone XL pipeline. So the Canadian government will have to deal with his administration for all of its remaining days.
Given the president's dissipating power, however, Canada should be looking to the shape of U.S. politics post-Obama and to understanding the swirling currents of American society that are shaping those politics.
Canada has given itself a Liberal/liberal government, but whatever happens in the U.S. presidential election, Republicans will remain in charge of the House of Representatives. They will be powerful in the Senate and will control more than half of the state houses. They are not Liberals/liberals; indeed, they dislike the breed anywhere with a special intensity.
What has changed, among other things, in the Republican firmament is opposition to free trade. Republicans down the line in years gone could be counted on to favour free trade, which was very much in Canada's best interest.
Now, however, prominent candidates for the party's presidential nomination are angry about free trade, starting with Donald Trump, whose rhetoric, in turn, has caused other candidates to do a Trump Lite in criticizing free-trade deals.
This anti-free-trade attitude reflects grassroots Republican opinion, as opposed to the view of the party's business backers. Big money remains behind free trade, but the grassroots apparently are not, seeing free trade as a mortal threat to their jobs and a major reason for the evisceration, as they see it, of swaths of American industry.
Naturally, the left-wing Vermont Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders is against free-trade agreements. But now even former secretary of state Hillary Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just as she opposed, in the end, Keystone XL.
U.S. protectionist sentiments toward Canada, a country so heavily dependent on open access to the U.S. market, could pose a serious economic threat to bilateral trade but also to robust U.S. support for global trade liberalization, which is in Canada's interest as an open economy dependent on foreign markets.
There is, too, the profound, and in some quarters even paranoid, fear of terrorism, abetted by attacks not in the United States but elsewhere and by the evident inability of the United States to stop terrorism from infecting
Canadians worry much less about terrorism, perhaps because of geographic isolation and a sense that the country's relative insignificance in world affairs insulates it from becoming a target. Canadians therefore commit the cardinal error in analyzing the United States: wondering why that country cannot be more like us, an error that leads Canadians to minimize or discount how the United States views itself and the world.
Even the Obama administration is proposing to increase the defence budget to combat terrorism. The Trudeau government has no plans to increase defence spending, and is pulling out of the front-line fight against the Islamic State. When allies don't even pretend to pull their weight, it gets noticed at least in some quarters in Washington.
Just now, congressional hearings are examining whether Canada's decision to admit 25,000 Syrians (far more than the United States will accept) might threaten U.S. security. Canadian officials insist our safety checks are more than adequate, as indeed they might be for a Canadian audience, but not necessarily for a U.S. one worried about infiltration across the border of terrorists posing as refugees. What we might see as paranoia, some Americans consider prudent self-protection.
The sense of America in decline, so hard to fathom beyond the country's borders, washes through U.S. politics, leading to a robust assertiveness, at least rhetorically, with no favours necessarily extended to those historically considered the country's friends.
Mr. Trudeau should enjoy the dinner on March 10, say all the right things, then plan for post-Obama.