An evening with Barack Obama - The Orca

An evening with Barack Obama

Maclean Kay

America’s 44th president charms Vancouver

Eight observations from Barack Obama’s Q&A at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade:

1 – He’s a big fan of Vancouver’s Convention Centre.

It wasn’t always popular with B.C.’s governing NDP (they’ve since come around) but the first words out of Obama’s mouth were praise for the Convention Centre.

“Vancouver, you’re showing off with this venue,” Obama joked.

“Sheesh! It’s a distraction.”

2 – He views Sarah Palin as a historically important figure in US politics.

Asked by moderator Iain Black what event from his presidency future historians would look back upon as a defining moment, Obama first mentioned two more obvious events: the financial crisis and continued ramifications from 9/11, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Then, he said: Sarah Palin.

“That was an important moment.”

Specifically, when John McCain chose her to be his vice-presidential candidate on his ticket against Obama in 2008.

“There has always been a strain of nativism in US politics – suspicion of elites, and right-leaning populism,” said Obama, pointing out that while this has become associated with the Republicans, it used to be the Democrats – within living memory.

Obama described “country club Republicans” who used this racially-tinged nativism to their electoral advantage – but always “kept a lid on it” between elections.

Palin changed all that.

“She brought populist energy to the fore,” said Obama, “and the establishment and mainstream Republicans lost control.”

Obama drew a direct, causal line between this event, and his successor in the White House.

3 – We tend to exaggerate our differences with the US.

Asked what he learned about the Canada-US relationship, Obama smiled.

“Listen Canadians…we’re cousins.”

Obama said we share so much: an undefended border, culture, values, beliefs, assumptions, and more, that not only should we be friends and allies, but we’re practically indistinguishable.

He got a big laugh joking about Canadians “sneaking around” in the US: “Like Martin Short – he’s Canadian? Who knew.”

“The tensions that do exist between us…on a global scale, they are incidental.”

4 – Yeah, about those incidental tensions – and one of the event’s two uncomfortable moments.  

To highlight just how small the tensions are between us, Obama shared an anecdote from the last few weeks of his presidency, and a meeting with Justin Trudeau at the White House.

“He wanted to talk about timber for an hour,” said Obama, “I’m like ‘Dude. I got Syria. The Paris Accords. You want to talk about timber – really?’”

“I know it’s an important issue,” he assured the room, “but it’s not India/Pakistan.”

How removed was Obama to softwood’s centrality in Canadian and especially B.C. politics? He never once called it that. Just “timber.”

5 – That wasn’t the only subtle (seeming) rebuke to Justin Trudeau.

One of Obama’s most senior (in every sense of the word) advisors was Bob Gates, who served under presidents dating back to the 1970s. Obama shared the first piece of advice Gates gave him:

“You have about two million employees [in the federal government]. You can be sure that somebody, somewhere is screwing up.”

What Obama took from that is that mistakes are inevitable – the trick is making the right kind.

“I ensured that people with integrity would be empowered to be the decision-makers,” said Obama, “so I was able to live with making mistakes.”

As if to underline that point, Obama added he was very proud to leave office without a scandal.

If he didn’t mean it as a commentary on current Canadian politics – the quiet gasp from the audience indicated they took it as one.

6 – He has a B.C. connection.

When meeting Lieutenant-Governor Janet Austin, one of her staff approached Obama, saying he knew “Conrad.”

Yes – Barack Obama’s brother-in-law’s cousin lives and works in B.C.

7 – He’s worried about the economic implications of A.I.

Asked what he thinks about coming challenges for the US and world in general, Obama went through the hits: climate change, inequality, and the rise of extreme political movements, particularly in Europe.

And then: artificial intelligence.

“The A.I. issue is coming very fast,” says Obama.

“We’re looking at 15 to 25 years of [coming] revolutions in A.I. in which vast segments of the job market will be just eliminated.”

“What we consider highly-skilled work will be done much better by machines,” says Obama, adding we need to start dealing with this issue now.

8 – The charm, charisma, and command of the room that won him the presidency? Still very much intact.

Granted, it was a friendly – even loving – audience. But at no point did Obama not have absolute mastery of the crowd, including the two eye-widening lines about softwood and integrity in leadership.

Whatever you think of the man and his legacy, he’s very, very good at this.


Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca