When Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in 2015, he seemed to be a refreshing combination of optimism and heritage.
His “sunny ways” approach and efforts at including all manner of Canadians in power sharing won him world attention. Americans could only look on enviously as their political scene deteriorated into darkness and disagreements.
But lately, Mr Trudeau — son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — has come off as less adorable than irritating in some Canadian quarters. And the cheerful shield he wore when he took office seems to be frayed around the edges.
The eye-rolling reached a crescendo last week, when Mr Trudeau took his photogenic family to India on what was ostensibly an official visit, but appeared to be more a series of photo ops.
There were the Trudeaus, dressed in Indian garb, at the ashram where Mahatma Gandhi lived. There was Mr Trudeau, again in Indian wedding dress, meeting with Bollywood stars, and dancing the bhangra at Canada House in New Delhi.
And while he donned a business suit to meet with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, that meeting raised eyebrows because it came so late in Mr Trudeau’s official tour.
The trip was labelled “a PR nightmare” by commentator Rob Breckinridge, who wrote: “One need only to refer to ‘that India trip’ and for the foreseeable future we’ll all know exactly what that means.”
In the Washington Post, India-based journalist Barkha Dutt wrote:
“Suddenly, all that charisma and cuteness seem constructed, manufactured and, above all, not serious.”
Trudeau ‘promise’ failing in practice?
India seemed to be the gasoline that accelerated an already-smouldering fire in Canada, where Mr Trudeau’s popularity has been sinking in recent months.
In 2017, the number of Canadians describing Mr Trudeau’s performance as “poor” or “very poor” rose to 39 per cent, from 33 per cent in 2016 and 32 per cent when he took office in 2015, according to a survey released in January by Nanos Research and the Institute for Research On Public Policy.
“In a sense, the Trudeau Government’s support is suffering from the transition from the promise of governing to the practice of governing,” Nanos Research Group chairman Nik Nanos said in a press release accompanying the survey.
Canadians were divided 50:50 on whether Mr Trudeau’s Government was taking the country in the right direction. In 2016, the view was 54 per cent positive, and when Mr Trudeau took office, 63 per cent felt he would take the country in the right direction.
Canadians, according to pollsters, are unhappy on a number of fronts.
One key issue is affordable housing. Thanks to booms in Toronto and Vancouver, the average home price in Canada jumped in January to $CA602,000 ($607,000), up 7.6 per cent from a year ago, and nearly 35 per cent from five years ago.
The average home price in the Vancouver area now tops $1 million, and is nearly $750,000 in Toronto, where luxury condominiums have meant a permanent sea of construction cranes across the city’s skyline.
Last November, Trudeau detailed a $40 billion, 10-year plan to reduce the burden, with a strategy to build 100,000 new homes, fix 300,000 and reduce homelessness by 50 per cent. The program would give families an annual rent subsidy of $2,500, beginning in 2020 and running through to 2028.
A more-global battle looms as the US tries to revamp NAFTA, initially negotiated by former US president Bill Clinton over the objection of American union officials.
A new round of talks begins this week in Mexico City, and Canadian officials have expressed fears the US might try to “tank” the entire trade agreement.
Social media persona just a disguise?
Mr Trudeau, an enthusiastic user of social media, once could expect hundreds of complimentary comments with his posts. But, he now is smote by critics every time he puts up a photo, video or a statement.
It’s a sharp contrast to the warmth he experienced in the months after his election, when it seemed so unusual for a political leader to actually be enjoying meeting his constituents. The growing vitriol is especially notable given Canadians’ general politeness and gentle jokes.
In between his election and India, of course, has come Donald Trump, and the fracturing of American views in Mr Trump’s wake is starting to be mirrored in Canada.
Canadians, it appears, had high hopes for Mr Trudeau that he just hasn’t met.
Instead of Superman in a suit (an image he fed by wearing a Superman t-shirt on Halloween), Mr Trudeau’s opponents say he’s turning out to be what they predicted: a young, somewhat inexperienced leader who has yet to get his arms around the complexities of Canadian society.
It might be tempting to wonder whether his popularity might have endured longer if Hillary Clinton had been elected, rather than Mr Trump, who kicked off his presidency by demanding a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the US, Canada and Mexico.
Emo style means hugging it out
Great to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi again today in Delhi. Thank you for the warm welcome and productive talks on…
Mr Trudeau is one of two global leaders who have leveraged social media to build their images, the other being France’s Emmanuel Macron. He, like Mr Trudeau, has had his own tangles with the right, over migrants and farm issues, but continues to charge forward with confident determination.
Mr Trudeau is a quick study, and there’s no doubt he’ll be reading and listening to the reaction to his India trip.
Perhaps he’ll adjust the emo style that has seen him weep publicly at the death of his friend, legendary Canadian rock musician Gord Downie, and hug everyone from arriving Syrian refugees to the Indian Prime Minister, who is as well known for embraces as Mr Trudeau.
But, Mr Trudeau may simply just shrug and continue along his sunny path. After all, his place in Canadian history is secure, alongside that of his father, who starred in and inspired multiple documentaries and books.
In the end, it depends on whether his service as prime minister was his ultimate life goal, or simply a stop on what is bound to be a long public life, just like his friend, former American president Barack Obama.
By law, Mr Obama didn’t get the option of serving a third term, even if some Americans feel he still fills that role.
Mr Trudeau, by contrast, has the option of serving far longer under Canada’s parliamentary system. His father, after all, was in office for 15 years, making him Canada’s third-longest serving prime minister, behind William Mackenzie King and John A. MacDonald.
The main question is whether the son will wear well enough with Canadians — and do enough for them — to last that long.