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Cross-pollination can only do so much for a leader

In this Nov. 19, 2015 file photo, President Barack Obama listens as Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a bilateral meeting in Manila, Philippines.

Susan Walsh/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Long before Justin Trudeau travelled to Washington, his circle had travelled with Barack Obama's. Obama people and Trudeau people started working together years ago, and the lessons learned from those connections were key to Mr. Trudeau's success. Now there's an Obama-Trudeau club. It counts right now.

When he's outside the White House in Washington this week, Mr. Trudeau will mostly be at two events co-hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a big think tank that's a leading force in Obama-Democrat politics. The first reception for Mr. Trudeau on Wednesday night, where Obama Democrats and Trudeau Liberals mingled, was one of those. That's no accident.

The centre, founded by former Clinton and Obama adviser John Podesta, doesn't confine its cause to the United States. It started something called the Global Progress Initiative to link up with similar left-leaning organizations around the world. Canada 2020, an outfit with lots of Liberal links that's now headed by close Trudeau friend Tom Pitfield, became the Canadian hub. Now it is co-hosting Mr. Trudeau's events in Washington with CAP.

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Back in 2012, CAP organized an event on the lessons of the Obama campaign. Mr. Trudeau's inner circle went, according to CAP's Matt Browne: Mr. Pitfield; Gerald Butts, principal secretary in the PMO; and Katie Telford, who became the Liberal campaign manager and is now Mr. Trudeau's chief of staff.

But there were many more occasions. Mr. Browne had worked for Tony Blair running the so-called Progressive Government dialogues – also dubbed the Third Way – which brought together Mr. Blair, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien to rebrand centre-left politics. CAP's Global Progress Initiative brought in organizations from farther afield, holding events in the Netherlands and Chile. "The Trudeau Liberals and the guys from Canada 2020 have been closely involved in all of those," Mr. Browne said.

That was more than policy. CAP is itself as much about communicating and marketing ideas as policy research. Think tanks and party institutions and consulting firms mix and mingle in Washington in a way Canadians aren't used to. Mr. Obama's campaigners mingled with Mr. Trudeau's.

CAP's Anne Johnson, who had done training for the Obama campaign, travelled to give advice to Mr. Trudeau's people. Others were linked, too, including two deputy campaign managers for Mr. Obama's 2012 campaign, Stephanie Cutter and Jen O'Malley Dillon, a data analytics expert who delivered a speech at the Liberals' convention in Montreal in 2014.

The Trudeau Liberals sent people for digital and data campaign training at the New Organizing Institute in Washington. Some Obama Democrats helped the NDP, too; in time, more worked with Mr. Trudeau's Liberals.

Some of the American lessons are visible. Mr. Trudeau's trip to Washington was promoted with a Liberal fundraising contest to win a trip there – a promotion like the win-a-dinner with Mr. Obama contest that Democrats have used. The Liberal Party and Canada 2020 are separate, but linked through key people who support both, such as CAP and Obama Democrats. The connections are too clubby for critics: The Conservatives complained the win-a-trip promotion marketed a state trip and created a conflict, noting Canada 2020 was founded by principals of a consulting firm, Bluesky, some of whom lobby the federal government.

The cross-pollination has spread policy notions, too. The economic policies that Mr. Trudeau won with – dispensing with zero-deficit religion to embrace borrowing to spend on infrastructure to create jobs, and pledging to address income inequality – echo those of CAP's Inclusive Prosperity Commission, co-chaired by Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, which also included Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, now the Trade Minister. Mr. Trudeau's government even has an "inclusive growth" committee of cabinet.

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In Washington, the same political community is now excited about Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Browne said, because they saw his win as a "shot in the arm."

"I don't think it is presumptuous to say that people see him very much as the future of the movement," he said.

But the catch is that Mr. Trudeau leads a country, not a movement. His government has quickly seeded a new, warm relationship with the White House, but Mr. Obama leaves it in 10 months. That group welcoming Mr. Trudeau's people with gusto will survive, at least in part, under a Democrat like Hillary Clinton, but obviously not under a Republican like Donald Trump. Congress is a more complex mix. And in government, Mr. Trudeau's statecraft will mean he needs to be heard by others, outside the club.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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