There are certainly no documented instances of the two leaders working closely together on anything of substance. On the contrary, one of Trudeau’s first acts upon assuming office was informing the White House that Canada would be ending its air campaign against the Islamic State, an explicit rejection of Obama’s oft-stated desire to internationalize the war.
Odd, then, that Obama felt the need to take to Twitter on Wednesday and let the world know that he thinks Trudeau deserves to be reelected next week. Odder still was Obama’s decision to cite the fight against climate change as one of his key reasons for doing so. This, after all, was another issue on which the two leaders had famously diverged: Obama vetoed construction of the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline on environmental grounds; Trudeau applauded President Trump’s decision to re-approve it.
But perhaps oddest of all was the fact that America’s first black president chose to endorse a man who just a couple weeks prior was engulfed in scandal following revelations he wore blackface repeatedly, and as recently as 2001 (and possibly more often, since he says he can’t remember).
With its far larger black population and more front-of-mind history of racial tensions, it’s probably fair to say that tolerance of blackface is even lower in the United States than in Canada. Thus, while no one in Trudeau’s party has called for the prime minister to step down, we may recall that basically the entire Democratic Party establishment, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Hillary Clinton to every major presidential candidate, demanded the immediate resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam this year, after he was revealed to have worn blackface once in 1984. Obama did not weigh into this particular row, but here’s what his vice president had to say: “Governor Northam has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately.” (For what it’s worth, Obama has not endorsed Joe Biden).
It’s all but inconceivable to imagine any major Democrat publicly singing the praises of Northam anytime soon, yet Obama did exactly that for a considerably younger man who committed Northam’s exact same offense, repeatedly, in a much more enlightened era.
According to CTV, the Liberal Party has “not yet confirmed whether the party had asked for [Obama’s endorsement] or was aware that it was coming,” though the fact that the Liberals are already busy fundraising off it suggests it was at least appreciated.
It’s been widely observed how unusual it is for an U.S. president — either in or out of office — to offer an explicit opinion on how the democratic process of some other country should play out. Obama famously spoke out against Brexit two months before voting day (to little apparent consequence) partially on the grounds that keeping the United Kingdom in the European Union was "a matter of deep interest to the United States,” strategically, economically and morally. In 2017, Obama similarly endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy for the presidency of France, in a move observers tied to the fact Macron was running against the far-right Marine Le Pen, a woman seen to embody existential threat to the liberal order of the Western world.
Does Obama view mild-mannered Andrew Scheer, Trudeau’s Conservative Party rival, as a phenomenon as menacing to American and global interests as Brexit or Le Pen? For this is the company an obscure Canadian politician once described as “a bland conservative dad” now keeps.
At a time when both Canada and the United States have grown increasingly insecure about “foreign meddling” in their democratic elections, and particularly at a time when every word of the current U.S. president is being carefully scrutinized for diplomatic impropriety, the example Obama chose to model Wednesday seems oblivious at best and irresponsible at worst.
Regardless of what clarifying details are eventually revealed, the inescapable reality is that the 44th president of the United States has elected to shatter precedent and spend his considerable capital as a statesman on a cause as frivolous as Trudeau. It is a fitting monument to a relationship that has always seemed more about spectacle than substance.