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globe editorial

According to Justin Trudeau, Justin Trudeau began making the world a better place before he was even born. He tells the story in his memoir, Common Ground, of how his pregnant mother rebelled in 1971 against rules at the Ottawa Civic Hospital that forbade husbands from accompanying their wives in the delivery room. Margaret Trudeau was furious, he writes, and said if the hospital didn't relent, she would have her first child at 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister's drafty official residence.

"When word of my mother's protest reached the hospital's board of directors, they promptly abolished the old-fashioned restriction, followed by other hospitals in Ottawa and eventually across the country," he said. "I like to think that, along with my father, I helped my mother strike a blow against old-school patriarchal thinking."

You can see him smiling when he said that, of course. Mr. Trudeau may like to take selfies, but he is not so vain as to think he influenced the world from inside the womb. In fact, the second-youngest prime minister in Canadian history (only Joe Clark was younger) has proved that he is rather more than a pretty face smiling into a cellphone camera. His come-from-behind election victory in October and his self-assured transition into power are compelling evidence that there is more to the man than a famous name and good looks. Anyone still saying otherwise is delusional.

Plus, he has now officially changed Canada, his in utero experience notwithstanding. Mr. Trudeau's election is as altering as Stephen Harper's was in 2006, when a straight-talking, optimistic Conservative leader took the country out of the hands of a tired and corrupt Liberal Party. Power in Canada shifted westward just as the economy was heading in the same direction. When oil prices were peaking in 2011 and the Conservatives won a majority, it felt as if Canada was heading into a long period of uninterrupted Tory rule.

Mr. Trudeau undid all that with a campaign based on sunny principles that voters could relate to: openness, optimism, inclusiveness, an enlarged federal government that works to bring out the best in Canada's potential, and a modest redistribution of wealth to benefit the middle class at the expense of the rich. He ignored his opponents' efforts to portray him as too inexperienced to lead the country, and even exploited them with smart advertising that turned those efforts on their head. He was solid on the hustings and in debates, never getting distracted from his message, but rarely sounding like a robot reciting memorized lines. He was lucky, too. Mr. Harper and Tom Mulcair, the NDP Leader, ran weak, tunnel-visioned campaigns, and the long writ period allowed Mr. Trudeau to recover from early stumbles. The stars aligned for the Liberal Leader and his team, which is something that often happens to politicians who work hard in a determined and intelligent fashion.

Since taking power, Mr. Trudeau has effortlessly mixed serious policy with brazen self-promotion. This is a world leader completely at ease with social media and its possibilities and pitfalls. One minute he is announcing a cabinet that is 50-per-cent female; the next he is posing provocatively for Vogue magazine with his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. He was front and centre on Twitter at the Paris climate-change summit and the G20 meeting in Turkey, while his cabinet back home orchestrated the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees on a tight deadline. When the first refugees arrived, he was there to meet them not only with selfies but also with a well-crafted speech that was replayed around an admiring world.

Canada at the end of 2015 is simply not the Canada at the beginning, for better or for worse. Based on the general mood of the country, it is for the better. There is a palpable sense of relief that the darker side of Mr. Harper's politics – the fearmongering, the targeting of Muslims, the identity politics – didn't win the day. And there are legitimate reasons to hope that Mr. Trudeau's Kennedyesque idealism about the ability of a federal government to unite a county can be translated into real policies and laws that make this an even better place to live.

Let's be honest, though – Mr. Trudeau is untested in office, and many of his patriotic utterances are still annoyingly saccharine. His honeymoon shields are set to maximum and have deflected all incoming fire to date, including the "nannygate" mini-scandal.

His honeymoon aura will fade quickly, though, when bureaucrats block his path, when civil service unions currently in negotiations refuse to share his collegiality and go on strike, when natural and man-made disasters are somehow blamed on his government, and when the partisanship of Parliament eats away at his resolve to be above it all. Only then will we know what he is made of. As delusional as it is to still think Justin Trudeau is just an expensive haircut, it is equally so to insist at this point that his auspicious debut will translate into positive policies in the long term.

There is also a touch of hubris to Mr. Trudeau and the smart people who surround him. It's reminiscent of the crippling "best and the brightest" syndrome of the Camelot years that convinced the Kennedy White House it could win the war in Vietnam. The new Prime Minister sees himself as a force for good – an attitude that is as necessary for politics as it is dangerous. But unless matched with self-doubt, that kind of thinking can blind a government to reality, lead it to ignore valid criticism and make terrible mistakes.

Mr. Trudeau has big plans for Canada. He intends to be transformational, and he hopes he can bring the country with him down his sunny path. The world is a precarious place, and Canadians want a leader who can keep them safe, prosperous and confident about the future. He has four years to show what he can do.