President Barack Obama huddled with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday for talks on the slumping economy, trade and the war in Afghanistan as the new U.S. leader traveled outside his country’s borders for the first time.
Obama touched down late morning in Ottawa, heading into a day of meetings on touchy topics. He came bearing a pro-trade message to assuage Canadian concerns over protectionism; a promise of a new strategy in Afghanistan as Canada moves to pull out all its troops there; and talk of clean-energy cooperation as controversy hangs over Canada’s oil-rich sands.
Under gray skies, a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 people greeted Obama as his motorcade pulled up to Parliament Hill. One person carried a sign that read “Yes we CANada!”
Obama shook hands with Harper and waved to the crowd, prompting a huge cheer. He was meeting privately with Harper before key members of their teams joined them for a working lunch. The two leaders will cap their visit with a news conference.
It is Obama’s first chance since taking office to command an audience abroad, let alone get an impression of the conservative leader Harper. The two had not met previously.
Earlier, Obama was greeted off Air Force One by Governor General Michaelle Jean, who represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state in a mostly ceremonial role. Red-coated Mounties lined a path on the icy tarmac as Obama and Jean went indoors for a meeting.
Canada and the United States have the largest trading relationship between any two countries in the world. And for all the talk of ending a dangerous reliance on foreign oil, the U.S. depends more on Canada for imported oil than it does any other country.
As Obama grapples with an economy in free fall, he has kept his focus at home. As if to underscore that urgent domestic tone, he isn’t staying the night or even sticking around for dinner in Canada. He will be in Ottawa for under seven hours.
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Yet that pace belies an agenda packed with sensitive topics.
Harper had a good relationship with Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, calling him a president who “never promised me anything he couldn’t deliver.” And Canada’s ties with the U.S. run deep. Still, Bush became deeply unpopular in Canada, which had a spillover effect.
“Canadians are gaga over Obama,” said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. “It gives Harper a lot more leeway with the United States.”
Personalities aside, matters of war and economic strife await Obama and Harper.
Canada is planning to pull its 2,500 combat troops out of Afghanistan’s volatile south in 2011, following the loss of more than 100 troops killed in the country since 2001. Obama is headed the other direction, dispatching 17,000 more U.S. troops to the war zone.
Both the U.S. and Canada have urged other NATO countries to contribute more to stabilize Afghanistan, where insurgents have gained new strength and the top U.S commander is warning of a “tough year.” But Canada’s people say they have shouldered their burden enough.
Obama plans to tell Harper that the U.S. is overhauling its strategy in Afghanistan, with more effort on diplomacy.
On the economy, Obama comes with a reassuring pro-trade message.
There is no strident talk from the White House about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement _ or even pulling out as a tool of leverage. Obama raised that idea as a candidate for president with an eye toward strengthening labor and environmental standards. But reopening a lucrative trade pact among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. is not a mess Obama wants to get into now.
Environmental groups want Obama to get tough with Canada about its massive oil sands operation. Alberta’s tar sands present a deep supply of potential oil, but the extraction process produces a high amount of the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.
Other issues are the “Buy American” clause in the economic stimulus bill Obama signed into law Tuesday and his administration’s move to impose stricter “country of origin” labeling on fresh meats and other foods sold in U.S. stores.