President Barack Obama charted a delicate course with Canada on Thursday, using the first foreign trip of his presidency to ease tensions over trade policy, climate change and the war in Afghanistan — all the while basking in his celebrity status in a nation where his approval ratings are so high that a local bakery named a pastry after him.
The quick day trip marked a striking shift in U.S.-Canadian relations under President George W. Bush. If Canadians were no fans of Bush, their conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, found in him a kindred philosophical spirit.
Obama, on the other hand, is so popular here that he used a news conference on Thursday to thank Canadian volunteers who crossed the border to help his campaign. At the same time, he sought to soothe a skeptical Harper on policy matters like whether to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement — Obama suggested doing so as a candidate but has since recalibrated his stance — as well as a “Buy America” provision in the $787 billion economic recovery package he just signed into law.
“I provided Prime Minister Harper an assurance that I want to grow trade, not contract it,” Obama said during the brief, four-question news conference with Harper in the grand Gothic-style center block of the Canadian Parliament. “And I don’t think that there was anything in the recovery package that was adverse to that goal.”
The prime minister responded by giving the president a bit of a lecture, remarking that Canada’s stimulus package “actually removed duties on some imported goods.” “If we pursue stimulus packages the goal of which is only to benefit ourselves, or to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, we will deepen the world recession, not solve it,” Harper said.
The exchange was an awkward moment in a visit that was intended by both leaders to emphasize their countries’ friendship and longstanding bonds. After slipping up by nearly referring to Ottawa as Iowa, Obama went on to say that he has a Canadian brother-in-law and that two of his top aides are Canadian.
Harper responded to a question about border security by saying that “threats to the United States are threats to Canada.” It was a powerful sound bite that appeared to be the final word of the news conference, until Obama jumped in to get one last word of his own, saying, “We have no doubt about Canada’s commitment to security in the United States.”
The leaders announced what they called “a clean energy dialogue” to work out their differences on environmental issues, among the thorniest between the United States and Canada, and engage in joint research on technology to reduce carbon emissions.
The United States is a big importer of Canadian oil, and Harper has been trying to win an agreement to exempt Canada’s vast tracts of oil sands, which contain up to 173 barrels of recoverable oil bound into sand and clay, from regulation. Obama is under intense pressure from environmentalists to resist that effort.
“We’re not going to solve these problems overnight,” the president said.