Two years after a historic U.S. presidential campaign and a far less memorable Canadian federal election, Barack Obama and Stephen Harper are living in alternative political universes.
Obama is sinking under the dead weight of inherited failures while Harper surfs a wave created by the aftershock of his predecessors’ successes.
Twenty-four months, ago Manhattan sidewalks were speckled with young Obama Democrats happily pushing a remarkable victory over the top.
Now, they’ve vanished.
Gone with them is that fall’s effervescence. Gone, too, are most of the great expectations for America’s first black president.
Hope has left the castles Obama built, chased out by fear and replaced by disappointment and anger. New York seems as energized and outwardly affluent as ever; the rest of the country is not.
One in 10 Americans is looking for work. Some 12 million houses glut a market swamped by foreclosures that will rise this year by more than a million. At almost $14 trillion, the national debt is the world’s largest — and it’s out of control.
None of this is a surprise. Along with two costly wars, Obama’s troubles came pre-packaged with Oval Office prestige and power.
What’s astonishing — and what distinguishes the U.S. president from the Canadian prime minister — is how poorly Obama is playing the lousy hand he was dealt.
Once in the White House, the candidate whose velvet rhetoric and soaring vision lifted souls and changed perspectives somehow, somewhere misplaced his gift to explain and persuade.
At a loss for the right words, Obama has let himself carry the can for the mess George W. Bush left behind. Worse, the president hasn’t convinced the country that he’s busy with mop and pail.
As they prepared to vote on Tuesday in an election widely expected to return control of the House, if not the Senate, to Republicans, Americans have forgotten what happened when and what’s been accomplished since.
They aren’t remembering that the banks and auto giants ad failed before Obama’s election.
Under the withering fire of a disinformation offensive, voters aren’t grasping that this president’s massive stimulus saved 3 million jobs or that his administration is shifting tax cuts from the idle rich to working stiffs.
Catastrophic in itself, that failure to communicate is made more poignant by the Canadian experience.
Since narrowly winning re-election just weeks before Obama’s wider triumph, Harper has played a stronger hand so much better.
Public opinion hasn’t shifted much since then. Still, Canadians generously give Harper credit for our past where Americans wrongly blame theirs on Obama.
The contrast is stark. The prime minister was bequeathed a budget stimulus and a banking system the envy of the western world is seen. Despite runaway spending that made deficits a certainty long before the market crash, Harper is perceived as a prudent and capable financial manager.
There are reasons for Harper to pound his chest — last week the auditor general tossed a rare bouquet to the government, praising its efficiency in getting stimulus money out the door.
But his seminal achievement is twisting labels. He’s made the same Liberal party that left him and the country in such sound fiscal shape into a tax-and-spend threat to future prosperity.
Two conclusions flow from the illusions roaming free north and south of the 49th parallel.
One is that in the ruins of the financial collapse, hope is no match for fear.
The other is that in the fanciful new political order, perception is reality.
James Travers is a syndicated national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star.