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Are Canadians still willing to give Justin Trudeau a second look?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses his national caucus during a winter caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses his national caucus during a winter caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Whatever Ken McDonald, the Liberal MP for Avalon, said or meant to say about Justin Trudeau's leadership, the most cutting assessment of the prime minister published this week might have come from Jeanette Dyke, a patron of Tiny's Bar and Grill in Paradise, N.L.

"I just cannot take Justin Trudeau anymore," she told Radio-Canada. "He has charisma … but to me he's annoying."

Those comments speak to the most basic challenge of political leadership. The TV cameras that watch politicians daily magnify every facet and quirk of their personalities. And like a houseguest — one who can be blamed for every grievance about the economy, or the real estate market, or the price of gas — a political leader's odds of overstaying their welcome grow with each passing day.

"I think the relationship between a political leader and the people is a bit like a marriage," Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski told reporters this week, venturing a different analogy. "After quite a few years of a marriage, sometimes things don't quite look as rosy as they were at the beginning of a relationship. And if you ask people why, they can't point to one particular thing, but it's a whole bunch of things."

Sometimes it's small things.

"They loved him for his hair to begin with. Now they hate him for his hair," Powlowski continued. "But is that really reason to vote the other way and vote against him?"

To hold on to power through another federal election — his fourth as leader of the Liberal Party — Trudeau probably doesn't need to be widely beloved. He probably can't hope to be.

But he still might need some of the people who are feeling just a bit tired of him right now to give him a second (or third or fourth) look.

The ups and downs of Trudeau's public image

It would not be the first time Canadians have reconsidered Justin Trudeau. Measured over time, public sentiment toward him has run through peaks and valleys.

In the fall of 2014, a little more than a year after he became Liberal leader, Abacus Data found that 39 per cent of survey respondents held a positive view of Trudeau, compared to 29 per cent who felt negatively toward him. By the summer of 2015, with his own missteps and Conservative attack ads eating away at his reputation, his personal numbers were underwater — 30 per cent positive against 33 per cent negative.

Shortly thereafter came the surge that brought Trudeau to office. In November 2015, Abacus found Trudeau had a net score of plus-37 (56 per cent positive, 19 per cent negative).

Those numbers eroded over the two years that followed, as one would expect for any prime minister. But then they plunged with the SNC-Lavallin affair in 2019. A year later, the numbers flipped back in the other direction when Canadians rallied around the federal government's response to the pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau's numbers didn't move decidedly back into the negative until the 2021 election. But that turn against the prime minister has only continued since, to the point where a line graph of positive and negative sentiment now shows a yawning gap. Earlier this month, Abacus found that Trudeau's net score was minus-34 (25 per cent positive, 59 per cent negative), nearly the inverse of his highest point in 2015.

What's dragging him down now?

Unlike the drop in 2019, it's hard to point to any single precipitating event to explain the turn in public attitudes on Trudeau. It's probably some combination of things, big and small.

There are a several factors that would be dragging down any prime minister right now. At least some of the drop in Liberal fortunes seemed to coincide with interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada. Inflation has fallen markedly from its recent highs, but the impact of higher prices is still being felt. And the current government has been in office now for eight years. (Trudeau is also far from the only G7 leader struggling with public opinion these days.)

And while voters can tire of any political leader eventually, Trudeau hasn't always conducted himself like a politician worried about exhausting the public's patience. He has been a very public prime minister and he does few things quietly, up to and including his Christmas vacations.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau greets supporters during a campaign rally in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 18, 2015. The Liberals did well in the fast-growing city in the last election.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau greets supporters during a campaign rally in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 18, 2015. The Liberals did well in the fast-growing city in the last election.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau greets supporters during a campaign rally in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 18, 2015. (Reuters)

The decline in his public standing might call for grand moves — something like the Liberal campaign ads in 2015 that directly took on Conservative claims that Trudeau wasn't "ready." But Trudeau is also contending now with a media narrative that will tend to interpret any big move as evidence of desperation or flailing.

What the Liberals can do — and perhaps must do, if they want to win the next election — is ask Canadians to look closer at the other guy.

Will the next election be a choice or a referendum?

"The big thing is, compare him to the alternatives," Powlowski said this week. "And I think if you look at the alternatives, and I think as Canadians get to know Pierre Poilievre better, a lot of people will realize, 'Okay, Trudeau's not so bad.'"

The Liberals intensified their focus on the Conservative leader last fall and Trudeau used significant portions of his televised speech to caucus this week to highlight his differences with Poilievre.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Poilievre's remarks at a rally in support of Israel at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Poilievre's remarks at a rally in support of Israel at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Poilievre's remarks at a rally in support of Israel at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In the lead-up to the 2019 election, Trudeau's team internalized the idea that the vote needed to be "a choice, not a referendum" That framing is likely twice as important for the Liberals now. The Liberals won that election while Trudeau's personal numbers were in the red — he began that campaign at 35 per cent positive, 46 per cent negative.

At 25 per cent, Trudeau obviously is in worse shape now. But his personal approval is also not too far below the 33 per cent of the popular vote the Liberals won in 2021 — enough to win 160 seats and retain government.

If (or when) inflation falls enough for voters to notice, and if interest rates decline in tandem, some of the dark clouds surrounding Trudeau and his government might part. That might allow Canadians to see him in a different light.

That might be the best scenario Trudeau can hope for. On the other hand, he might reach a point (if he hasn't already) where too many voters are simply unwilling to give him a hearing —  where no matter what Trudeau's government has to say for itself, a critical mass of voters simply can't take him and his hair anymore.

And if the Conservatives can successfully turn the next election into a referendum on Trudeau, the Canadian voter could end up deciding to marry someone very different.