Obama could help improve Harper's image

OTTAWA: During the Canadian federal election, opposing parties went to considerable lengths to tie Prime Minister Stephen Harper to US President George W. Bush, one of the most least-liked presidents among Canadians in recent memory.

OTTAWA: During the Canadian federal election, opposing parties went to considerable lengths to tie Prime Minister Stephen Harper to US President George W. Bush, one of the most least-liked presidents among Canadians in recent memory.

Now with a new US administration led by Barack Obama, Harper has an opportunity to cast himself in a more likeable light, and his government in a more centralist-minded one, which is important should the Conservatives eventually win over urban centres, which still voted predominantly liberal in the October election, preventing Harper from capturing his hoped-for majority.

“The more popular the president is, the more stronger and public of a relationship Canadians are going to expect between the two leaders,” said John Capobianco, SVP of public affairs, Edelman Canada, and a former Conservative candidate in two previous elections. Clearly, Harper has already started cultivating a closer relationship, calling Obama's win “a tremendous and truly inspiring moment”. His office also described the first phone call between the two leaders as a “warm exchange.”

“But there's always a fine line between an American and a Canadian from a political perspective. During the Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan years, many Canadians felt their relationship was too close,” added Capobianco. “Then you had Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin's relationship with Bush, where they allowed their MPs to malign the president and, in fact, even politically attack him. There is a middle ground between being too cozy and being completely disrespectful. Canadians want our leader to be respectful, but to fight for our interests.”

Canada will face a challenge in capturing Obama's attention, given he hasn't showed much interest of or knowledge about Canada, according to Marc Nusca, VP and regional director of Porter Novelli Canada. But Nusca added that Harper has to recognize their commonality, that “both have records of being coalition builders.”

Canada also has diverging views on a number of key issues including the mission in Afghanistan, energy, and NAFTA.

But where they will come together is the economy, and many believe Canada has a chance to be seen globally as a leader in this respect. Trevor Vekman, partner of Cohn & Wolfe's Calgary office, told PRWeek: “Canada has a big opportunity to be a part of that sense of collaboration and renewal that Obama has spoken about throughout his campaign.”

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