Hope, optimism and the changing face of politics: Barack Obama in Toronto

Jonah Kotzer

On Friday, September 29th, former U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The event was hosted by Canada 2020 and drew an audience of 3,000 people, who paid $10,000 per table to attend. Students of University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance were invited to volunteer at the event and had the chance to watch the President’s speech.

Obama was greeted to thunderous applause by the sizeable audience — evidence of his enduring popularity both at home and among Canadians. Though he never mentioned Trump and only used the word “hope” a handful of times, the President spoke out against the rise of nationalist movements around the world and provided sage advice on how to curb it, while assuring his audience there was still much cause for optimism. He highlighted what he believes are the policy concerns of the future — automation, global warming, nationalism and precarious employment among them — and how despite the growing global pessimism, we are well suited to adapt to them. He focused on the need for labour reforms if society is to equitably adjust to the reality of precarious employment, and he criticized recent attempts to repeal and (possibly) replace the Affordable Care Act in the U.S Senate. Obama also discussed some threats to traditional systems of labour and governance, briefly praising world leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Between his jokes and messages of hope, Obama provided the audience with a policy road map informed by several of his hopes, assumptions and concerns. For instance, on the topic of labour, he highlighted the importance of addressing automation and disruptive technology in the workplace. Be it automation in industrial production, artificial intelligence in service jobs or radical changes to transportation technologies, a new reality is coming quickly and the labourers of the future will need to adjust. It is estimated that up to three million people could be put out of their jobs by automated vehicles in the United States alone. Precarious employment is already rife in the West; in Canada, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has told Canadians to get used to “job churn.” People are taking more jobs in their lifetime, and firms are not offering young people the job security that the generation prior enjoyed. Obama emphasized the role of policy makers and unions in representing the interests of labourers moving forward.

Talk of the changing face of work transitioned quickly to concerns regarding rising nationalist sentiment and the need for increased cooperation on global issues. President Obama made it clear that despite the talk of trade wars, closing borders and the end of trade agreements, the best path forward is through international cooperation. He expressed the same desire as his political rivals to have more manufacturing jobs in the United States, though he added the caveat that it is only possible if we properly understand the changing reality of industry and the growing role of automation. Simply vilifying China is to ignore the reality on the ground there, he said. In fact, Obama argued that developing our understanding of what reality is like for people in other countries is essential for cooperation, a point he highlighted with an anecdote about convincing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to join the Paris Climate Accord.

President Obama stressed the role of media in an increasingly nationalist political climate, decrying the personal silos people on the right and left inhabit and the rise of fake news. Conspiracy theories and lies can take the face of legitimate news and quickly propagate throughout society, with adverse impacts. Stories of the families of Sandy Hook victims being harassed by strangers on the internet due to conspiracy theories and fake news are examples of the negative impacts these silos can cause. He spoke out against divisive language of right wing media like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the impacts they have had on politics and the national dialogue on inclusivity.

Despite all the problems Obama pointed out and the wide range of issues he commented on, the President said that if he could choose to be placed at any point in history, he would choose this one. He drove home the message that there is much to be celebrated, though policy changes will be needed in order to allow the next generation to say the same. In particular, keeping the planet habitable will involve cooperation on nuclear safety and greenhouse gas emissions. There are clearly challenges ahead, but one can hope that the President’s optimism is well placed and that we as a society are more than up to the tasks ahead.

Jonah Kotzer is a student at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. He has worked in importing and teaching and in government at Natural Resources Canada. He is a published photographer with works appearing on Vice.com. His policy interests include natural resources, trade, access to justice and economic development, and his favourite holiday is Halloween.