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Canada’s Trudeau Could be Obama’s Progressive Heir

Trudeau could be the natural heir to Obama's progressive legacy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Trudeau could be the natural heir to Obama's progressive legacy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama’s joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday had all the hallmarks of a torch-passing between progressive leaders.  

Obama repeatedly touted his younger counterpart’s work on climate change and referenced the liberal values he and Trudeau share. He even gave Trudeau, 44, advice on coloring his hair when the stress of his office turns it gray.  

The not-so-subtle message was that on issues such as the environment, Trudeau, not Hillary Clinton, could be the natural heir to Obama on the global stage. The Democratic presidential candidate has embraced many of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce carbon and other emissions that Democrats and many scientists say are warming the planet, believing the issue to be among the most pressing facing the United States.  

Clinton also has embraced the “progressive” tag, but with a caveat: “I am a progressive who gets things done, and the root of that word, ‘progressive,’ is progress,” Clinton said during a Feb. 10 debate.  

That means a President Clinton likely would focus on how far the political system would allow her to go in pursuit of the progressive movement’s goals. And on climate change, Clinton has often tamped down expectations.  

For instance, she has said the “science of climate change is unforgiving, no matter what the deniers may say.” But she also has characterized the politics surrounding the issue “unforgiving,” calling the matter a “tough sell” at home and abroad.  

Then, there’s the Canadian prime minister.  

Obama said he and Trudeau share “a common outlook.” He noted Trudeau “campaigned on a message of hope and of change” — just like a 46-year-old Obama did nearly a decade ago.  

“On the world stage, his country is leading on climate change and cares deeply about development,” Obama said. “So from my perspective, what’s not to like?”  

On a morning call with reporters, Dan Utech, deputy assistant to Obama for energy and climate change, said the president views the Canadian leader as “a really strong partner on this set of issues.”  

He said since Trudeau took office last year, the two leaders have discussed climate change several times. “We expect that cooperation to continue,” Utech said.  

Trudeau, for his part, said the two leaders — and the two countries that share a continent and a massive border — possess “shared values [that] make us kindred spirits.”  

Leading the world into an age of less carbon output could become a signature issue for Trudeau once Obama becomes a private citizen in January.  

“Overall, the president and I agree on many things, including, of paramount importance, the direction we want to take our countries in to ensure a clean and prosperous future,” Trudeau said, wearing a three-piece blue suit and stylish brown shoes.  

“The president and I share a common goal,” he said. “We want a clean growth economy that continues to provide good jobs and great opportunities for all of our citizens.”  

At times, the two dropped the typical diplomatic formalities, calling each other “Barack” and “Justin” in the Rose Garden as birds chirped and sirens whaled outside the White House gates. That followed the friendly handshake and back-slap when Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, arrived at the executive mansion earlier Thursday.  

Obama took issue with a Canadian journalist’s characterization of him as a short-timer, saying it made him sound “old and creaky.” But while Obama will be a relatively young former president, part of his legacy will depend on the success or failure of both the global climate pact he helped secure and U.S.-Canadian measures announced Thursday.  

That will link Obama and Trudeau for years to come.  

“I think he’s poised to be a major global leader on the issue,” said Rafe Pomerance, chair of the Arctic 21 network of scientists and activists and a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Polar Research Board. “My impression of everything I’ve heard from some Canadian colleagues is Trudeau cares deeply about climate change.”  

Should Clinton win the White House, Pomerance believes she and Trudeau could continue collaborating on climate change. If GOP front-runners Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas become the next president, Trudeau would have to pick up Obama’s torch and run with it, he said.  

“I think Trudeau would have to do more both internationally and bilaterally if a [climate change] denialist is in the White House,” Pomerance said. “We have tremendous problems on both sides of the border. … The relationship will be strained if we get a denialist in the White House.”  

Contact Bennett at and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.
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