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Some takeaways from Barack Obama’s $10,000-a-table visit to Toronto

Some takeaways from Barack Obama's $10,000-a-table visit to Toronto
Photograph from Barack Obama/Instagram

On Friday, a tanned and relaxed-looking former POTUS took the stage at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre before 3,000 frenzied attendees—everyone leapt to their feet when 44 walked out—to talk with former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman about Justin, Sophie, Zuckerberg, Trump, and even the sublime excellence of Burlington, Ontario. Here are a few important takeaways.

The bromance is real

Obama didn’t dispute the notion that our PM has taken up the progressive torch. “Justin represents a wave of young leadership that believes in some pretty traditional values in democracy—pluralism, rule of law—but are also trying to adapt those values in a dynamic and disruptive time,” Obama said. “That’s the kind of creativity I hope we see in all governments and leaders.” He also name-checked France’s charismatic young leader, but used his surname, Macron. Point: Trudeau.

This particular shindig was two years in the making

The event was thrown by the confusingly named Canada 2020 (what happens in 2021?), a progressive think tank co-founded by Thomas Pitfield, a former Trudeau adviser, Tim Barber, a career Liberal mandarin, and Susan Smith, a communications consultant. The three of them were chit-chatting in Washington in 2015 about whether Obama might ever consider speaking at a Canada 2020 event. Heyman, who was appointed by Obama and is now a special advisor to Canada 2020, no doubt played a key role in setting it up.

Obama deemed Canada cool

Heyman asked his former boss for advice for Canada in the new world order. “Well, look,” said Obama, “Canada, I think you guys are doing great!” to which the audience audibly swooned.

Some takeaways from Barack Obama's $10,000-a-table visit to Toronto
Obama on the big screen at Friday’s event. Photograph by Malcolm Johnston
Strombo was there in spirit

Obama and Heyman plopped down into oversized cherry-red cube chairs not unlike those upon which George S. once liked to perch. Obama seemed to enjoy them. “These are nice,” he said, settling in.

The big dogs were in the house

Tables at the event, which went for $10,000 each, were filled with bigwigs from business, politics and entertainment: former BFFs Mayor Tory and Premier Wynne were seated at one of them, but not across from each other. Finance minister and farmer bully Bill Morneau was there, and so was innovation minister Navdeep Bains. Obama bestowed shoutouts upon all of the above. Others in attendance included ex-RBC CEO Gord Nixon, very Real Housewife Ann Mulholland, Postmedia honcho Paul Godfrey, Bell repairman George Cope, former Manulife CEO Dominic D’Alessandro, master of disaster Jaime Watt and Zoomer EIC Suzanne Boyd.

Trump lurked

The bogeyman was too scary to name, but everyone found clever ways to invoke him: “We didn’t know how good we had it,” said Smith of the Obama years. “I don’t believe the future belongs to the strongman,” said Obama, later. Later still: “I’m an old-fashioned guy. I believe in the Enlightenment, and reason, and logic, and you know, facts,” he said to sustained applause.

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Weather jokes still slay, as does geography-based flattery

Obama started with some perfunctory Canada references, noting that his first foreign visit as POTUS was to Canada: “It was February. I wasn’t happy with the weather, but the warmth of the people made up for it.” He mentioned what a swell time he’d had with Justin and Sophie during their state dinner in Washington, then wrapped up the ego massage by mentioning that his brother-in-law is from Burlington (“Whoo!” yelped someone, presumably from Burlington). “Me and Canada,” said Obama, “we have this thing.”

Keep jobs in America, sure, but not by reverting to the 1950s

Trump loomed large once again when the conversation turned to jobs. Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to replace human jobs, Obama said, but trying to revert to the 1950s is foolhardy. In fact, the ex-pres added, the traditional idea of permanent full-time jobs is fast becoming an antiquated notion—and governments, employers and employees need to adapt to the new reality.

The U.S. healthcare debate is straight-up bonkers

As for the U.S. Senate’s continuing efforts to further mangle the U.S. healthcare system, Obama offered these zesty nuggets: “What are we on, our 62nd vote?” and “Repeal and replace...with…something?"

Stranger Things

Trump’s name was first mentioned 32 minutes into the proceedings, when Heyman asked Obama about the phenomenon of “OOT voters”—those who voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump. What, Heyman asked, is the deal with that? Obama hemmed and hawed, and then uttered the understatement of the millennium: “A lot of strange forces converged in this last election,” he said to laughter.

News is a major problem

“In the U.S., if you watch Fox News and your neighbour reads the New York Times, your worlds do not meet,” Obama said. Back in 2008, he could visit a rural area in the U.S. and have a fairly normal exchange of ideas with people. Today, he said, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and “crazy stuff on the internet” have ruined his rep in those parts of the country. He said he has met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other media leaders to figure out ways to “break down silos” and create space for “a digital town square.” But getting there will take time—perhaps as long as 20 years, he said. So just cool your jets, everyone.

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What should rattled Americans do in the short term?

Obama pondered this one for a moment, and as the room braced for a grand Axelrodian strategy, he delivered this morsel: “Look, I’m a Democrat. So between now and the next election, I want us to get more votes.” He elaborated: the majority of Americans are actually aligned with the Democratic party, he said. The problem is that those people don’t always vote—and they sure didn’t last time around. So instead of pursuing some grand party reinvention, he said, Dems needs to get way better about getting out the vote.

Yes We Can, unless In Fact, We Can’t

For all the headaches, violence, injustice, and tragedies of today, Obama said, he likes the moment. “If you had to choose any moment in history to be born, I’d choose now,” he said. On average, we’re the healthiest, wealthiest and best off since the dawn of civilization. The trouble, he said, is that progress isn’t a guarantee. We could easily backslide into World War II, with “half the world on fire.” Things got quiet for a bit.

The Obama Foundation is here to help!

It’s not all dire, guys! Obama plugged his new initiative, the Obama Foundation, as a “hub or university for social change.” When Obama was in his twenties, he said, he knew where to go to be a doctor or lawyer or dentist. But finding a place that taught people to promote human dignity and relieve poverty and make sure the environment is preserved for the next generation—well, that wasn’t so easy to do, and that’s the gap his foundation hopes to fill. Speaking of which, the foundation is having its young leaders conference in late October in Chicago and, he said—possibly just to continue buttering up the audience—“I think a couple of Canadians are going.”

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