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A shot of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with U.S. President Obama graces a giant screen in Times Square in February of 2009. (PR Newswire)
A shot of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with U.S. President Obama graces a giant screen in Times Square in February of 2009. (PR Newswire)

Lawrence Martin

Why isn't Ignatieff courting Obama? Add to ...

A puzzling feature of a puzzling Michael Ignatieff is his failure to date to court Barack Obama and to weigh in on the future of a jittery Canadian-American relationship.

The Liberal Leader is highly suited to become an Obama soulmate as well as a consequential voice on bilateral affairs. Before coming to Ottawa, he had spent his previous five years at Harvard. He developed close contacts with players who are now in senior positions on Mr. Obama's team. And he has much in common with the President. Both are liberals, both are Harvard men, both are men of letters, both are citizens of the world. But Mr. Ignatieff has steered clear of a central role in the American debate and of Mr. Obama as well, leaving the field to Stephen Harper.

These are rocky times on the bilateral front. Trade volumes are declining, border fences have gone up. Financial tumult has walloped America and its paramountcy is challenged, at least to some degree, by Asia's rise. This country can't ride its coattails as it used to.

These are big challenges for big thinkers. We expected Mr. Ignatieff to respond by unhesitatingly seeking a close alliance with a liberal President whose popularity in Canada is enormous. Mr. Obama is a busy man but surely, given his contacts, Mr. Ignatieff could have received entry to the Oval Office by now, as opposition leaders before him have done.

The Liberal Leader is a favourite of The New York Times and generally well connected to the American media. He could have given the President a lift and won favour in Mr. Obama's camp by taking on right-wing Republicans on such issues as health care. Ottawa has serious differences with the Democrats on bilateral issues, but by building a rapport with the President, Mr. Ignatieff could have cast himself as better positioned than Mr. Harper to work them out.

This is what both Brian Mulroney and Lester Pearson were able to do as opposition leaders. In June of 1984, Mr. Mulroney got an important White House audience with Ronald Reagan. They met for 45 minutes and discussed acid rain, arms control, reduced U.S. steel imports and better ways to manage the continental relationship.

Mr. Mulroney established the Irish connection with the president that day. He had been off the front pages in Canada, much like Mr. Ignatieff has been this summer, and saw the visit as an opportunity to make headlines. It did. Even though Mr. Reagan wasn't terribly popular in Canada, the visit served to augment Mr. Mulroney's stature as a serious player. His visit followed one by Joe Clark, who was welcomed to the White House as opposition leader by Gerald Ford in 1976.

On the Liberal side, the early rapport Mr. Pearson developed with John F. Kennedy was of high significance. Mr. Pearson came to Mr. Kennedy's attention by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As a senator, Mr. Kennedy wrote a glowing review of Mr. Pearson's 1959 book, Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age. As president, he invited the Liberal leader to a dinner for Nobel laureates. It was the one where JFK brought down the house with his crack that never had so much talent been assembled in one room "since Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The president developed an affinity for Lester B., while forming quite the opposite impression of prime minister John Diefenbaker. He clearly wanted to see Dief defeated and his administration did what it could, which was quite a lot, to help the Liberals win.

Mr. Ignatieff met with Mr. Obama when the President visited Ottawa in February and went down to Washington to see some of his officials on a low-key visit later. But this hardly substitutes for time in the Oval Office. Perhaps the Liberal Leader has been hesitant to impose on the President's heavy schedule. Perhaps his low profile in the United States is due to sensitivity over his support for the Iraq war and his controversial remarks on the use of torture.

But he has to turn the page - there is still time - and get the Liberals on board the Obama train. It is too valuable an opportunity to miss.

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