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Trudeau learns from Obama to shift conversation on economy

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau gestures during his keynote address at the Liberal biennial convention in Montreal on Feb. 22, 2014.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

There were puffs of smoke at the Liberal convention, and emerging from the haze was the start of Justin Trudeau's efforts to redefine a key issue, the economy.

The Liberal Leader didn't define where he stands on specific economic issues, or public finances. Instead, his strategists were working to reframe the issue itself.

They don't want the question to be about who's best to manage the books, but rather, who is trying to alleviate Canadians' economic anxiety.

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This was a convention of staged moments that centred on Mr. Trudeau's sunny, star-power image. Rather than specifics on the economy, there was a little positioning, with Mr. Trudeau placing himself on the centre, rather than centre left – promising not to raise taxes on the middle class and highlighting Liberals with business credentials as star candidates. But the main goal was to reframe the economic debate, by developing a narrative that Liberals understand Canadians' angst.

That's why Mr. Trudeau's Saturday speech brought us Nathalie, a fictional creation of his speechwriters, a woman earning $40,000 a year, like her husband – stuck in traffic on Montreal's Champlain Bridge, worrying about debts and her children's future. The issue isn't managing, Nathalie was created to tell us, but doing something about that insecurity.

An Ipsos-Reid poll last week found Mr. Trudeau beating Prime Minister Stephen Harper on many measures: Who do you trust? Who has a vision? Who is best to lead on the world stage? But when asked who is best to manage in uncertain economic times, Mr. Harper clobbered the Liberal leader by 13 points. And the economy is the issue.

But Mr. Trudeau's advisers know U.S. President Barack Obama faced the same problem in 2012. Mr. Obama's deputy campaign manager, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, told the convention: Mr. Obama faced a successful business leader, Mitt Romney, whom voters saw as having stronger economic skills. "We had to change the choice, and we had to make it about the values," she said.

Mr. Romney, like Mr. Harper, was seen as having something akin to technical competence on the economy. But Mr. Obama's campaign told the voters he was on their side, and would take them to a better future; he won. Mr. Romney would talk about economic worries. Mr. Obama had positive messages about getting folks through it, like this one: "We have to move forward to a future where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules."

Mr. Trudeau's speech sounded a lot like that, with identical phrases, and a similar sentiment, that the economy's not an end in itself, but a means to make the lives of ordinary people better.

For all of Mr. Trudeau's talk of a plan, there wasn't one. There were those phrases. There were inklings of an approach: Government can prime the pump of the economy, "invest" in infrastructure, education, and job training, and promote trade, to boost growth. That will bring better-paying jobs to alleviate debts and insecurity. Like Nathalie's.

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There was another shade of Liberal at the convention, as delegates passed resolutions for social programs like universal daycare. But Mr. Trudeau's advisers, keen to avoid the image of a party that would dip hands into middle-class pockets, didn't give them a nod.

Instead, they spotlighted business Liberals as star-candidate endorsers. Former Manitoba Business Council CEO Jim Carr and Bill Morneau, chairman of human-resources firm Morneau Shepell. Mr. Morneau stressed education and training, and lent his background to the narrative: his company has seen a doubling of employee reports of stress he attributes to job and financial insecurity.

Mr. Trudeau's opponents say there's little substance. Mr. Harper's Conservatives will point to a slain deficit. They know Mr. Harper is seen as a stronger economic manager. But some will also recall Mr. Harper overcame Paul Martin's edge on that score, too, in part by telling Canadians he cared about their pocketbooks and would help with a GST cut.

If Mr. Harper is seen as better on economic questions, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals are trying to change the question – so it's not about who will manage better in tough times, but who cares about helping you manage through them.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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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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