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Here are some quotes from U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address:

  • “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.”
  • “We still need … a higher minimum wage.”
  • “Free community college is possible.”
  • “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”
  • “Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.”
  • “No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Could any Canadian imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying such things? If Mr. Harper were a U.S. legislator, he would have been sitting in the House of Representatives chamber with the sullen-looking Republicans. The Republicans might have chosen Senator or Congressman Harper to deliver their critical reply to the President's address.

Two men with two very different ideas of government are in charge in the United States and Canada, one difference being that most of Mr. Obama's progressive ideas have been and will remain dead on arrival in Congress, whereas Mr. Harper, as prime minister of a majority government in a parliamentary system, can put his ideas into practice.

The Obama-Harper dichotomy is not the first time U.S. presidents and Canadian prime ministers have been on completely different philosophical pages. Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau were hardly political soulmates. Nor were Jean Chrétien and George W. Bush.

Different domestic priorities, and even different views on the role of government, do not necessarily lead to conflicts over foreign policy or bilateral dust-ups.

Nor do good personal relationships at the top necessarily smooth all difficulties, but on balance, they do help. Alas, by every account – from U.S. and Canadian sources – there isn't much goodwill between Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper.

As the State of the Union shows, Mr. Obama is a U.S. liberal and Mr. Harper is a Canadian conservative. That the two men stress different priorities domestically doesn't matter much, but they can lead to conflict.

Mr. Obama, for example, believes in the seriousness of climate change, whereas Mr. Harper does not, a clash that has shaped their dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Harper government has allowed that one pipeline to excessively define the state of bilateral relations. A grievance mentality has settled over the Harper government because of Keystone XL, which Mr. Obama obviously opposes, although no final decision has been rendered.

The grievance mentality is deepened by the sense that the Americans have given nothing in return for Canadian participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the venue Canada provided for the U.S.-Cuba talks. Things have improved a bit, but they got so bad a while ago that the U.S. ambassador to Canada had to get Prime Minister's Office's approval for meetings with cabinet ministers.

With political optics defining almost everything in Ottawa, the Harper government dreaded a late-February meeting in Canada featuring Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Planning had been proceeding until the Harper government abruptly announced it was pushing back the meeting until some unspecified later date.

What Ottawa dreaded was the public airing, on Canadian soil, of disputes over Keystone XL and Canadian visa requirements on Mexicans. This would not have looked good, since it would have underscored how clumsily the Harper government has played both files.

Since neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Obama has a serious agenda for North America, and since the Mexican and U.S. presidents recently met in Washington, why even have a meeting? Normally, the leader of the smaller country (Canada) would want some face time with the leader of the superpower (the United States), but not now, and not with this prime minister.

Mr. Obama is now what Americans call a "lame duck" president in the last quarter of his eight years in office. Like all presidents, he has one eye on the present and one on the history books. His progressive agenda outlined in the State of the Union reflected this bifocal situation.

Mr. Obama must be saying to himself, given what he faces in Congress, "let me be judged by what I wanted to accomplish, rather than by what I did." Whether history will agree with that prism remains, by definition, unknown.

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