Opinion-Policy Nexus

It is generally a mistake to confuse style with substance in politics.

There are times, however, when style serves to highlight and reinforce substance, by imparting a sense of urgency and personal commitment to what might otherwise be passed off as a routine, everyday message.

It was like that when President Barack Obama addressed Parliament in Ottawa last week. It was a remarkable speech, partly for what he said, but mostly for the passionate way he said it. It rang with the dedication of a liberal democrat who finds himself confronted with dark forces — terrorism, bigotry, intolerance and demagoguery — abroad and at home in his own political backyard.

The speech capped a week in which the "Three Amigos" (Obama, Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto and Justin Trudeau) met in a summit of North American leaders. Seldom, if ever, have the three countries had leaders who are so much on the same wavelength. If Obama were not in the lame-duck phase of his presidency, one could hope that the common purpose they extolled in Ottawa would lead to a degree of North American unity, in part to offset the Brexit-induced upheaval among members of the European Union and its trading partners.

But hope must be suspended until November's election in the United States. Republican Donald Trump wants nothing more than to destroy Obama's legacy. Democrat Hillary Clinton may have to run on that legacy, but she lacks Obama's eloquence and commitment.

Watching Obama on television last week, I was struck by both the similarities and differences between that speech and the one I witnessed in Washington in February 1977, when Justin's father, Pierre Trudeau, addressed a joint session of Congress. The representatives and senators were almost as enthusiastic that day as our MPs were when they heard Obama last week. It was a superb speech. It touched all the necessary bases, including the rise of separatism in Quebec at that time.

But it lacked the electricity of Obama's. Trudeau read his speech from a prepared text, and it is hard for even the most accomplished orator to generate two-way excitement with his audience when he is working from a printed page or teleprompter.

Although I lost track of the number of standing O's that MPs gave Obama, I was stuck that members of the Conservative caucus spent as much time leaping to their feet as the Liberals did. How might it have been different if the visit has occurred a year earlier when Stephen Harper was still prime minister? (Not that Harper would have invited Obama to address Parliament or that Obama would have accepted.)

But if Harper's presence were still looming over the House, would his MPs have been so enthusiastic when Obama spoke about causes for which the former PM had scant interest, let alone enthusiasm. Here are just three examples.

On gay, lesbian and transgender rights: "The colours of the rainbow flag have flown on Parliament Hill. They have lit up the White House. That is a testament to our progress, but also the work that remains to ensure true equality for our fellow citizens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."

On equality between men and women: "Our work won't be finished until all women in our country are truly equal, paid equally, treated equally, given the same opportunities as men, when our girls have the same opportunities as our boys. That's who we need to be."

On climate change: "There is one threat, however, that we cannot solve militarily, nor can we solve alone. And that's the threat of climate change. Now climate change is no longer an abstraction. It's not an issue we can put off to the future. It's happening here, in our own countries … This is not a conspiracy. It's happening."

If the applause from Conservative MPs was genuine, it would suggest the party has turned a corner, ready to face rather than deny some of the difficult issues of the 21st century.