President needs to stiffen spine

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The beaming face of Barack Obama -- whether surveying adoring fans on Parliament Hill or bestowing on Ottawa shopgirls an experience they can dine out on for the rest of their lives -- was oddly reminiscent of Hugh Hefner's line about feeling like a kid in the world's biggest candy store.

Ottawa may seem more like Canadian Tire than a candy store, but one could well imagine Obama thinking: And they pay me for doing this?

Obama clearly loves the crowds, which is not surprising since he came to power riding a wave of popular support. He's methodically cultivated that, with personal charisma but also with a populist message that's resonated with tens of millions of people, including here in Canada. He's talked of "spreading the wealth," about reviving worker and labour rights and about a "common good."

After decades of a virulent form of capitalism, in which powerful corporate and financial interests have shaped public policy to their own advantage, Obama has offered the first real whiff of change.

The thousands who braved the cold for hours on Parliament Hill weren't there to show their support for deeper Canada-U.S. integration -- the agenda of the our financial elite. They were there because Obama's message is the first sign of a possible breakthrough in dealing with the world's two foremost crises, the global economic meltdown and climate change, both products of the unregulated capitalism of recent years.

In this sense, Obama's appeal crosses national lines. His insistence on putting climate change on the agenda has the support of Canadians, even though it risks slowing down oil sands development and reducing revenues here in Canada.

Or take NAFTA. Commentators have tried to whip up fears he wants to reopen the deal, suggesting this could damage Canada-U.S. trade. But NAFTA isn't just about trade. It's about enhancing corporate rights, often at the expense of workers and communities, which is why it's always been more precious to corporate interests than to the public.

Obama has talked about strengthening labour and environmental protections in NAFTA and even ending the right of foreign companies to sue governments for taking regulatory actions that protect citizens but interfere with corporate profits in the process. (That's the section of NAFTA that has allowed Dow Chemical to challenge a Quebec law banning the pesticide 2-4D.) Why wouldn't we want to revisit all this?

The real question is whether Obama can deliver. His bank bailout package, in which the U.S. is squandering billions without getting control of deviant U.S. banks, suggests there may be a courage problem. Certainly he's got to shed some of his illusions about the possibility of winning over enemies.

He can't satisfy the masses who love him and also satisfy the people responsible for the disastrous agenda of the last 25 years.

Franklin Roosevelt came to understand that. When he introduced his second New Deal in 1936, he unabashedly ran against what he called "the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."

It's hard to imagine the smiling guy who bought Beavertails in Bytown last week welcoming anyone's hatred. But then, give him time. He's only a few weeks into the job.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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