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Sunny Ways And Sunny Days May Soon Darken For Justin Trudeau

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU
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There is no other way to describe it -- Justin Trudeau has been a public relations superstar from the very moment he took office as prime minister almost a year ago.

As one who teaches a graduate course in public relations (and has been a PR practitioner for more than 35 years), I can confidently say that no North American politician in recent memory has more deftly managed his public image. Not John F. Kennedy. Not Ronald Reagan. Not even Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

And certainly not Stephen Harper.

The truth is that the camera loves Justin. Foreign leaders love Justin. Many swoon in his presence and envy his sophistication (not to mention his left hook).

Writing here more than a year prior to the 2015 election, I warned Conservatives not to underestimate Trudeau's innate appeal to Canadians. The "Just Not Ready" attack ads, I asserted, would not dent his viability as a serious contender. Plus he really did have nice hair.

What I didn't anticipate was Trudeau's ability to sustain his public relations success over an extended period of time. It is one thing to have a great political honeymoon -- Kennedy, Reagan and Obama all got off to great starts -- but it is quite another thing to go almost a year from high point to high point (with the recent visit to China capping things off).

Kennedy, to whom Trudeau is often compared, started off with a ringing inaugural speech... but was soon mired in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and a disastrous summit meeting with the Soviets in Vienna. Reagan also started strong -- the Iranian hostages were released as he gave his inaugural address -- and his popularity was temporarily bolstered by his bravery (and humorous quips) in the face of an assassination attempt. But soon things began to go south for the Great Communicator, as the U.S. economy stalled and his poll numbers plummeted.

There are several dark clouds on the horizon -- and any or all could dent the Trudeau mystique.

This is not so say Trudeau's public persona hasn't taken a few hits over the past 10 months.

There was, of course, Elbow Gate -- his ill-advised trip across the floor of the Commons in May. And he has had other minor slips (like not knowing that the Baltic States -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- are, indeed, "a thing").

But the fact remains -- Justin Trudeau continues to ride high.

However, just as September has shorter days and produces a tinge of frost in the evening air, this prolonged period of public basking in the sun may soon be coming to an end for our prime minister.

There are several dark clouds on the horizon -- and any or all could dent the Trudeau mystique:

1. The Economy- Despite all of the government's free-wheeling (deficit) spending, the Canadian economy has been stubbornly stuck in neutral or first gear, quarter after quarter. People tend to pay less attention to this in the summer months -- but they will pay more attention in the fall and they will hold the Liberals accountable. The biggest question mark? Will the force of gravity finally hit the housing sector.

2. Decisions Delayed - The PMO has deftly pushed some tough items into the future, including what to do about Canada Post; federal aid to Bombardier; and procurement of a replacement aircraft for Canada's aging CF-18's. Every one of these issues has the potential to make a significant number of people very unhappy and two -- Canada Post and the aircraft procurement -- could involve going back on (arguably ill-advised) campaign promises.

3. Washington Relations - Most Canadians fear a Trump presidency. And for good reason. The good news is that it is just not going to happen. The bad news is that a Hillary Clinton presidency will be no bed of roses for Justin Trudeau. Hillary is far more hawkish than Obama -- and far less friendly to free trade (having felt the Bern from Bernie Sanders).

4. Ministers Behaving Badly - Trudeau has already had some bad innings due to missteps on the part of cabinet members, specifically Health Minister Jane Philpott and former Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo. Both today could be positioned as aberrations. A couple more would be seen as a spreading ethical stain.

5. Kathleen Wynne - There's no question the Ontario Premier helped Justin Trudeau become prime minister. And there is no question that a number of his aides and confidants have close ties to her. But the reality is that she is increasingly becoming a liability. Trudeau needs to find a way to move away from Wynne... without appearing to do so. Good luck with that.

Justin Trudeau is smarter than people give him credit for. And he has been wise enough to surround himself with smart people -- and listen to them. That's a good thing, as they will need all of those smarts and more to navigate the coming months.

Robert Waite teaches graduate courses in public relations and media relations at Seneca College and is the Managing Director of Waite + Co., a communications strategy firm.

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