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Unhappy electorates on both sides of US-Canada border
TORONTO — On one side of the border, a president with an approval rating of 41%. On the other side of the border, a prime minister with an approval rating of 33%. The giant countries of North America have grown weary of their leaders. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the summer of 1987. Brian Mulroney noticed a headline in the New York Times reporting that Ronald Reagan’s public approval rating had plummeted to 59%. He picked up the telephone, dialed Camp David and told Mr. Reagan that he had discovered the fundamental difference between their two countries: the definition of the word “plummet.” Mr. Mulroney at the time had approval ratings in the mid-20s.
More than a third of a century later, Joe Biden — only four years younger than Mr. Mulroney is now — is facing calls to drop out of his reelection bid. Three Democrats in five believe Mr. Biden, at 80, is too old to serve another term. Even among those who support Mr. Biden for renomination as president, half say they might change their mind. Here in Canada, things are even worse for Justin Trudeau. When the 158 members of the Liberal caucus streamed to their late-summer conference the other day in London, Ontario, the mood was dark; the language that of despair. Every public-opinion poll in Canada shows the Conservatives soaring, and every commentator believes Mr. Trudeau — now embroiled in a dispute with India over charges it was involved in the slaying of a Canadian Sikh leader — is all but incapable of returning for a third electoral victory when he next faces the voters, sometime before October 2025. The reasons: persistent inflation and growing fatigue with the prime minister, who is in his second minority government.
“In Canada, eight years in power has taken its toll on Trudeau,” said Donald Savoie, a prominent public-affairs professor at New Brunswick’s l’Universite de Moncton. “No politician can make every call right in a period that long. The impatience in Canada was predictable, but in the case of Biden, many people were tired of him when he first took the office. He was wearing the burden of office the day he came in.” An even more startling fact: Not one G-7 leader has an approval rating above 50%. When Mr. Trudeau said the other day “there is discontent across the country,” he underestimated the leadership lassitude. It’s everywhere.
Here Mr. Trudeau is facing the threat that Conservative Pierre Poilievre, a political figure with the stern profile of Ron DeSantis — but who has freshened his personal image far more successfully than has the Florida governor — is primed to be the next prime minister. The glow is off Mr. Trudeau, who for a time sparkled with magic dust, so much so that six years ago he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline: Why Can’t He Be Our President? In the early Trudeau years, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Canada may be one of the world’s more boring countries, as yawn-inspiring as sensible shoes — wake up, reader, I know you’re snoozing! — but it’s also emerging as a moral leader of the free world.”
No one’s asking the Rolling Stone question, and no one’s making the Kristof comment, anymore. Mr. Trudeau, recently separated from his wife of 18 years, has had a rough ride: ethics questions, cabinet instability, questions about his sincerity on climate change (he bought an oil pipeline) and Indigenous rights (he went on holiday in the British Columbia beach town of Tofino during the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation). Once considered Canada’s analogue to the youthful vigor of John F. Kennedy, he emerged instead as the personification of Eleanor Roosevelt’s withering critique that the Massachusetts politician showed more profile than courage.
Mr. Trudeau captured the contemporary Canadian mood — and the mood toward him — when he summarized the public mood here by employing the French term la grogne, which conjures up images of people growling or being grouchy. “It is an extremely difficult time for almost every Canadian,” he told reporters. “We are facing prices that are too high for housing, for groceries, for gas. The cost of living is causing an enormous amount of difficulties.” Mr. Biden could say much the same thing. It turns out that la grogne does not respect national borders. There’s a pandemic of it.
As recently as two years ago, Lance Morrow could write in the Wall Street Journal that the president still had the capacity to “be the Dick Clark of 21st-century statesmen, presiding over the kids’ dances, spinning platers on the record player of the American future.” Almost no one thinks that anymore. Three-quarters of Americans believe Mr. Biden is too old, according to a CNN poll released this month.
The age issue is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics; though age figures are slightly misleading given the change in life expectancy over the past 234 years, the average age for presidents at inauguration is 55. Even so, until recently, William Henry Harrison (inaugurated 1841) at age 68, was the oldest president — and he died just a month into his presidency. Mr. Reagan, about a decade younger than Mr. Biden, was 73 at his second inauguration. Donald Trump would be 78 at the beginning of a second term.
The impatience with the two North American leaders might have a 13th-century explanation: Familiarity breeds contempt. Mr. Trudeau and his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (prime minister 1968-79 and again 1980-1984), account for 23 years as Canada’s prime minister. Mr. Biden has served in Washington for 47 years. There’s no whiff of freshness to either leader. Mr. Poilievre is 44. Though he’s been in Parliament for two decades, he’s a fresh figure nationally. Mr. DeSantis is 45, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina is 51, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina just turned 58. They’re new figures on the American political stage. And then there’s Vivek Ramaswamy. He turned 38 last month.
Remember this: Age isn’t necessarily a measure of freshness. Golda Meir was 70 when, in 1969, she became prime minister of Israel. She seemed fresh. Lyndon B. Johnson was only 60 when he left the presidency. He seemed tired, old, spent. That’s how Mr. Biden looks. And though Mr. Trudeau is only 51 — three years younger than George W. Bush at his first inauguration — he seems a lot like Mr. Biden: yesterday’s man.
(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)