Obama in Canada: Yes We Can do Something for Our People

When Barack Obama came to Canada last Thursday on a day trip, his first mistake was to confuse the capital city Ottawa with Iowa – a Freudian slip which may be forgiven considering what must be now a politically umbilical tie to the state which propelled him on the way to the US presidency.

After that faux pas Obama, on his first official overseas trip since becoming president, didn’t make another mistake as he extolled his love for Canada, extended graciousness to his hosts Governor General Michaëlle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Liberal opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff.

The people that likely need to be embarrassed were back in Washington DC and states where some governors, following their GOP ideologues’ prompting, have been waging war against Obama and the Democrats’ as well as, by extension, the multilateral financial organizations the IMF and the World Bank’s drive to reignite the global economy through government-led stimulus packages.

Before coming to Canada – Ottawa really – Obama with clear partisan support in the US Congress was able to give his assent to the $787-billion dollar economic recovery bill to stimulate credit, spending and staunch the job loss and create new jobs where possible. The bill provides increases in federal backing for states’ social services, infrastructure and education funding.

In a half hour private introductory meeting with conservative leader Harper, they discussed and appeared to agree to a common agenda for stimulating their twinned domestic economies with the aim of a global catalyzing effect. They also agreed to a US/Canada Clean Energy Dialogue for environmental protection and energy security and finally, according to both men, discussions on international peace and stability while taking specifically into account the war in Afghanistan, where Canada is America’s prime partner.

We should not expect that there not be criticism of the plans at reviving the economies. Across the Atlantic pond in the UK, where Gordon Brown’s Labour government has reduced the rate of VAT and recapitalised several banks, at a cost of billions of pounds, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have criticised the temporary 2.5 per cent VAT reduction, estimated to have cost £12.5 billion as a waste of money.

The BBC cites a poll of 5,000 small firms by the Federation of Small Businesses as suggesting 97 per cent felt it had made  “no impact at all”.

But as Business Secretary Lord Peter Mandelson told the US Council for Foreign Relations on February 17, the fact the recovery would be complex gave political opponents plenty of opportunities to exploit and warned: “There is no value in trying to create frenzy around these issues everyday”.

Criticism is one thing. Seeming indifference to the plight of suffering people is another and this is the message communicated by those Republican governors who have said they may not take all or part of the money.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has often been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate for the 2012 elections, said Friday he would not take Louisiana’s portion of the unemployment money as in three years time the state would have to increase taxes to continue the unemployment support.

Somehow there seems to be an echo of Marie Antoinette’s “the people want bread, let them eat cake” laissez faire, do-nothing attitude. And somehow it appears to describe a kind of new kind of global class war with a alignment of strange bedfellows.

Even as banks and other financial institutions collapse and their top executives like Bernard L. Madoff and Allan Sandford are carted off to jail on Ponzi scheme, fraud and deception charges, capitalists in the real economy such as Caterpillar’s CEO James Owens and the motor industry execs are not averse to the stimulus package.

The GOP’s solution seems to be in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market taking the place of good government.  But the market is like religion that is built up largely around metaphysics rather than physics. Governments today must treat the economy and the market as pragmatically as they treat religion: like China, still wedded to its communist ideology but using market theories to achieve social goals.

Humanity has had enough time to learn the lessons of history and revolutions do not have to be bloody affairs, which is the option when things are left to fester while waiting on Smith’s invisible hand or religion’s hand of god: people are exasperated and become violent.

It is, as we have seen, a global confidence game (ask Madoff, ha) and happily Canada’s conservatives are a more pragmatic lot than those to our south whose fiscal and social ideologies seem deeply intertwined – despite their selection of the first African-American secretaries of state and party leader.

Happily, even in the midwinter frost, many ordinary Canadians braved the weather to shower warmth on President Obama in Ottawa and in expressing his love for his northern neighbour, he has promised to return when even the weather is more favourable. Yes he can remember that.

Caption: Barack Obama listens intently to Canada’s head of state, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, after she welcomed him to Ottawa, Thursday, February 19, for a short official visit. Jean, born in Haiti, is the first person of African ancestry to be Canadian head of state, a mostly ceremonial role and Obama the first to lead the United States.

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