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Here's how Obama can raise Harper's game

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper has about as little in common with Barack Obama as John Diefenbaker had with John Kennedy.

It's not just that one is liberal and the other conservative. They clash on myriad levels. One's a visionary, the other more of a plodder. One's a renowned communicator, the other spent almost his first term trying not to communicate.

The Obama approach is that of a consensus builder. The Harper approach is divide and conquer. The Obama world view is of one family. Mr. Harper inclines more toward the "clash of civilizations" template. The new president is about to shut down Guantanamo; the Prime Minister didn't have much of a problem with it. The new president is soon to shut down the Iraq war; Mr. Harper didn't have much of a problem with it.

In style, Mr. Obama is GQ, Mr. Harper Rotary Club. Mr. Obama is a fine wine, Mr. Harper lime juice. Mr. Obama is relaxed, Mr. Harper suspicious. One is inspirational, the other isn't. One makes Americans feel proud. The other makes Canadians - except when he's almost overthrowing his own government - feel indifferent.

Mr. Harper and other leaders suffer unfairly in comparison to Mr. Obama. The new president's gaining all these glorious notices without even having served a day on the job.

But what's striking about the incoming American leader is that he's probably closer to the Canadian mainstream than the Canadian leader, who's closer to the Calgary or Texas mainstream.

As might be expected, Mr. Obama has more similarities to Michael Ignatieff. From his years at Harvard and elsewhere, the Liberal Leader has several close contacts in the Obama camp and will no doubt, with time, be cultivating them.

Put it all together and you might get the impression that Mr. Harper is dreading the advent of Mr. Obama. But you could be wrong. Mr. Obama's arrival has Canadian Conservatives optimistic. In contrast to George W. Bush, who was a barnacle, the Democrat presents Mr. Harper with a big opportunity.

If the PM plays it properly, he can share in Mr. Obama's winds of change. By building rapport with the new president, he can establish for himself a more moderate, modern and attractive leadership personality.

Economic conditions are already forcing a commonality of approach from the two leaders. Deficit spending, stimulus spending and tax cuts are the way each is going. Mr. Harper's outlays will be more along the lines of a dime-store New Deal than Mr. Obama's, but that's because we don't need as much of an overhaul.

On the environment, each favours a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming. The PM has moved slowly on this issue, but Mr. Obama's arrival prompted him to quickly propose a mutual accord on the environment. If he can be seen to be at one with Mr. Obama on this issue, it will help Canadians forget his three years of foot-dragging.

On border barriers, a problem Mr. Harper unsuccessfully raised with Mr. Bush, he should be able to make more headway with the new president. Mr. Obama campaigned against Republican politics of fear, which has led to America's putting up walls around the wall, including along the Canadian border.

Mr. Obama has a vested interest in quickly building rapport with the Harper government. One of his priorities is getting Americans off their dependence on foreign oil from unstable states. For that, he needs Canada. His style is bipartisan, so he won't come at Mr. Harper with a closed mind.

The potential is there for Mr. Harper to bask in some of the Obama limelight for as long as it lasts. The two leaders will never be buddies. At root, Mr. Harper is too different for that to happen.

But if he can be seen as working shoulder to shoulder with the new president in fighting the great recession, he will succeed in doing what he cares about most -- scoring political points. His finding common cause with the exalted American liberal would be too much for Canadian Liberals to bear.

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