Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
It wouldn't be fair to compare Justin Trudeau with the worn and chastened Barack Obama of today. So to do it let's resurrect Mr. Obama in his swaggering prime. Both men rose to power in their mid-40s as paragons of youthful vitality and fitness, both bore the hopes of a new generation (and of substantial fractions of older ones). Both offered "Real Change" (Trudeau) or "Change you can believe in" (Obama). Both sounded good at the time, and both ran flawless election campaigns, dazzling the media and bolstering their claims to govern. Both benefited from the surprisingly inept campaigns of their opponents. Last but not least, both swept to office on a wave of anger so powerful that neither had to sully himself with it.
In fact both electorates wanted the incumbents out even more than they wanted fresh downy faces in. That Canadians were royally tired of Stephen Harper and Americans of 2008 fed up with Republicans was only too obvious. Many Americans described the election of 2008 as cathartic. There are different sorts of catharsis, of course, and a voter may experience more than one. Catharses of guilt over racism left white Obama voters feeling better about themselves, but many also shared with Trudeau voters an equally soothing catharsis of rage. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Trudeau directly articulated this rage, preferring to project affirmation. ("Yes, we can." "This is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.") They succeeded as the smiling faces of vindictiveness. In 2008, while participating in CBC Radio coverage of Mr. Obama's great evening, I aired this too often overlooked fact. I thereby incurred the wrath of a supporter of his calling in from Philadelphia. Hadn't I observed, she thundered, that all of Mr. Obama's rhetoric was positive? Yes, I had observed that – as I had that no leader needed to pander to demonization when it was already securely in his corner. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Trudeau found themselves in this fortunate position. This explains why on election night neither could bring himself to be gracious to his predecessor. Their supporters would not have stood for it. As Homer observed so long ago, sweeter than all things is vengeance, sweeter than honey. It leaves a glow so pervasive that you can even persuade yourself that it affirms something.
Both the Obama of 2008 and Mr. Trudeau campaigned as "postpartisans," an American term whose relevance to Canadian politics Mr. Trudeau has been the first to demonstrate. Postpartisanism is neither nonpartisanship nor bipartisanship. It is frequently or even usually accompanied by stridently partisan positions. (Mr. Obama, for example, spent his term in the U.S. Senate assiduously crafting his postpartisan image, while consistently voting as far to the left as any Senator.) Postpartisanship is a rhetoric: It's about diffusing a certain image of yourself (and foisting its converse on your opponents).
Both the early Obama and Mr.Trudeau excelled at this rhetoric. Whatever policies you defend, you promote them as mainstream and middle road, beneficial to the middle class, generous but prudent, stimulative but affordable, environment friendly, true to your country's better self – in short, as policies so obviously welcome to all people of good will that only your grinches of adversaries could oppose them. Yes, this rhetoric is bland, but that is one of its strengths: it eschews those wedge issues so beloved of our Tories. It lends a kinder, gentler face to disagreement.
Postpartisanship cultivates "optimism" precisely because it eschews ideology. It presents its policies as noncontroversial if only the opponents would agree to them. Optimism graced Mr. Trudeau's campaign just as it had graced Mr. Obama's. Why not? The wicked witch was dead (the Bush administration in 2008, Mr. Harper's Tories in 2015), and the exaggeration of their responsibility for the problems facing their respective countries itself implied optimism about the future. The honeymoons were/will be brief, however, because rhetoric can only take you so far and both problems and partisanship will persist. Mr. Obama's postpartisanship barely survived his inauguration.