Harper's Balancing Act: Confidence & Uncertainty

By Jared Wesley on Oct 8, 2008

A lot has been made of Stephen Harper's inability to empathize with "the average Canadian" during the present economic downturn.  To be certain, Mr. Harper has done little to help his cause.  Last night on The National, he made an off-hand comment about how the stock market decline has opened "opportunities" for Canadians to invest at bargain prices.  Earlier in the day, instead of releasing his platform in a more 'grassroots' setting, he opted for a business audience at the Canadian Club.  (No sweater vests allowed.)  In Harper's defence, however, he faces a unique set of challenges -- distinct from those facing opposition party leaders and the two presidential candidates in the United States.

As a sitting head of government and leader of a political party, Mr. Harper is forced to portray two visions of Canada during this campaign.

First, as Prime Minister and from an economic vantage-point, he must reassure investors and project confidence in the Canadian economy.  He faces this pressure not only because of his titular position, but because, following the election, he will (likely) inherit the economic conditions now forming.  Second, Mr. Harper is also a party leader.  In a political sense, he must convince voters that he is the best option on the ballot.  During the earlier part of this campaign, this strategy involved convincing voters that Canada was entering a climate of uncertainty, and that his brand of "strong leadership" was necessary to weather the storm.  For better or worse, the Tories are stuck with this frame.

Thus, Harper the Prime Minister projects calmness and confidence, while Harper the politician preaches fear and uncertainty.  It's an awkward balancing act, and one that would have seen him face criticism no matter which side he favoured.  

I stand to be corrected, but I believe that Harper is the only major, sitting head-of-government to be facing an election during this early phase of the global recession.  His counterparts throughout the rest of the world would be wise to tune in on October 14th.

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