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lawrence martin

In his book Believer, David Axelrod tells of Barack Obama's "Yes we can!" moment.

Mr. Axelrod, the Obama image guy, liked the phrase because it gave voters a stake in making change happen. He put it in as the closing line for one of Mr. Obama's ads. But when the candidate saw it, he wasn't overly impressed. " 'Yes we can.' Is that too corny?" the future president asked. His wife, Michelle, was seated on a staircase. "Meesh, what do you think?"

"Not corny," she said.

And thereafter, "Yes we can!" became the rallying cry for the Obama presidential campaign.

But in office, Mr. Obama hasn't governed with that kind of emotional outreach. In his engaging and enlightening book, Mr. Axelrod reveals a liberal idealist who is the "ultimate rationalist." Mr. Obama is "preternaturally cool," he says, but has at times shown "a hint of moral superiority" that hasn't done him any favours.

Mr. Axelrod teamed up with the young Mr. Obama when he was unknown because "he addressed my growing sense of alienation from politics."

In Canadian terms, with his rationalism, his hauteur, his cool, Mr. Obama has character traits reminiscent of Pierre Trudeau. Anyone wondering why Canada-U.S. relations have fallen into a state of "No we can't" need only know that. Mr. Obama is Stephen Harper's opposite – operationally, stylistically and ideologically.

U.S. ambassador Bruce Heyman is being frozen out. Mr. Obama's man in Ottawa can't even get meetings with cabinet ministers. There are several bilateral irritants, but the White House refusal to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is at the heart of the matter. And that goes right to the philosophical differences between the men at the top. Mr. Obama is an environmentalist; Mr. Harper is not.

There's a common thread to Canada-U.S. relations. Whenever presidents and prime ministers are of differing political persuasions, they tend to clash and bilateral relations inevitably worsen. Witness Jean Chrétien's fireworks with George W. Bush, compared to his harmony with fellow liberal Bill Clinton. Witness Mr. Trudeau's compatibility with Jimmy Carter, compared to his strained rapport with Richard Nixon.

Witness John F. Kennedy's confrontations with Tory John Diefenbaker, versus his warm embrace of Lester Pearson. Liberals Franklin Roosevelt got along famously with Mackenzie King – not so with R.B. Bennett.

So the surprise shouldn't be that relations are not good under Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper – but that they aren't a lot worse. Mr. Harper must think he's dealing with another Trudeau, while Mr. Obama must think he's dealing with another hard-right Republican, especially when the PM lectured him on Keystone, saying he wouldn't take no for an answer.

The two men do have one thing in common: They both win. Writing about Mr. Obama's takedown of the Republicans in 2008, Mr. Axelrod offers up some campaign strategy that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might wish to bear in mind: " 'Barack's bet' was that 'candour was better than pander.' While he wasn't above the pleasing line, he understood that you could not wage war against conventional politics by acting conventionally."

The book serves as another indicator of where Canada stands on Washington's priority list. There isn't one mention of Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister's anger at the neglect from this White House is understandable, especially on the Keystone file. Although Mr. Axelrod writes about how the President detests everything being reduced to raw political calculation, his partisan political interests sure seem to be in play on Keystone.

The larger consideration with Mr. Obama, though, is obviously his other work. The United States is certainly a lot better off under him than it was under Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney. After the ill-conceived ideological muscle-flexing of those gentlemen, the ultimate rationalist was the tonic.

As Mr. Axelrod contends, Mr. Obama brought the country back from the brink.

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