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Barack Obama: The candidate Canadians understand

U.S. President Barack Obama points to the crowd during an election campaign rally at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida November 4, 2012.

JASON REED/REUTERS

If, as the balance of polling and probability suggest, Barack Obama squeaks out a narrow win Tuesday, most Canadians will heave a happy sigh, hoping it signals that the United States is not yet beyond redemption.

If Mitt Romney prevails, many of those same Canadians will be ready to write the United States off – at least for four years, perhaps longer.

This is because most Canadians don't, and never will, understand the South.

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Geoffrey Hale teaches political science at the University of Lethbridge and is the author of So Near Yet So Far, a new book on Canada-U.S. relations.

Based on his analysis of polling data on Canadian attitudes to Americans, and on specific issues, from trade to war, he concludes that "there is an irreconcilable 20 per cent who view the United States as the source of most of the troubles of the world."

"There's another 20 per cent who view the United States as a very good thing for the rest of the world," he observes, "and most of the rest are somewhere in the middle, depending on the particular circumstances and how they align with their interests."

For the 80 per cent of non-irreconcilables, Barack Obama has been a good president. His approach to the recession – massive government spending and a bailout of the auto makers – was Canada's approach. His push for public health care, cleaner air and fairer immigration matched Canadian values.

And Canadians approved his multilateralist approach to foreign policy – "leading from behind" in Libya, for example.

That, along with the fact he is just so cool, is why the overwhelming majority of Canadians support Mr. Obama's re-election: A Globescan poll for the BBC found 66 per cent would choose Mr. Obama, compared to 9 per cent for Mr. Romney.

For them, an Obama win signals America remains salvageable, notwithstanding the gridlock in Congress, the soaring deficits, the fierce polarization of values.

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If Republican challenger Mitt Romney wins, Prof. Hale believes, most Canadians will draw far gloomier conclusions, even though that might not be fair.

The former businessman and governor has solid credentials and is presenting himself, at least in his latest incarnation, as a moderate conservative who might have better luck getting a budget bill through Congress than would Mr. Obama.

But that's not the point. Mr. Romney is a Republican, and the Republican Party – once controlled by its Northeastern establishment wing – today is increasingly dominated by voices from the South.

"The word 'alien' I think describes the reaction of the average middle- or upper-middle-class Canadians to Republicans from beyond the establishment," Prof. Hale believes.

A teacher in Vancouver understands a teacher in Seattle. A Winnipeg business owner can share a beer and troubles with a counterpart in Grand Forks. Toronto hockey fans and Buffalo hockey fans are identical in everything except the teams they support. Culturally, Halifax and Boston are in some ways twin cities (at least in the eyes of Haligonians).

But a teacher from Texas, a small business owner in Georgia, a sports fan in Phoenix – these people can be hard for most Canadians to understand.

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Their populist anger at the Northern establishment, their deep Christian commitment, their fierce support for the right to bear arms and for capital punishment and opposition to abortion and much else are rooted in a culture and history Canadians don't share.

To the extent that Mr. Romney speaks for that Southern culture and history, he is alien to most Canadians, even if he was born in Michigan, summered in Ontario and governed Massachusetts.

Canadians will sit by their televisions Tuesday night, hands clutched, praying for Barack Obama to win, because he is the America they know.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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