Obama Visits Canada, Trade And Oil On Agenda
Obama was greeted by the governor general of Canada, Michaelle Jean, as well as the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, and a retinue of red-jacketed Canadian Mounties after Air Force One touched down in a light snow at Ottawa International Airport shortly before 10:30 a.m. The president is here for a string of official meetings and plans to hold a short news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the afternoon.
The United States is a major 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 billion barrels of recoverable oil bound into sand and clay, from regulation. Obama is under intense pressure from environmentalists to resist that effort. Thursday’s visit is not expected to produce any detailed pact, but a White House official said the two countries would commit to working more closely together on research and information-sharing on energy and technology.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prior to his trip, Obama stopped short of using the word dirty, as environmentalists do, to describe the process of extracting oil from the sands. But he said extraction work there “creates a big carbon footprint.”
Obama may also face tensions with Harper over the issue of trade; Canada is up in arms over a “Buy America” provision inserted by Congress into the $787 billion economic recovery package Obama just signed into law, and Canadians have not forgotten Obama’s campaign pledge to reopen negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - a pledge he has since backed away from.
Instead, White House officials say Obama will stress drafting new environmental and labor protection side-agreements to the pact, and will emphasize the $1.5 billion-a-day trading relationship between the United States and Canada, the largest trading relationship in the world.
Obama is hugely popular in Canada - one poll during the election found he is more popular here than in the United States - and the newspapers on Thursday were filled with stories about his visit.
Several thousand people stood outside the Parliament building Thursday morning, awaiting the arrival of Obama’s motorcade; when it pulled up, the crowd cheered wildly, and Obama and Harper stepped outside briefly to wave from behind a glass enclosure.
“They followed the campaign daily like we did,” said Jim Blanchard, a former ambassador to Canada under President Bill Clinton. “They were riveted to their televisions for a year and a half and very enamored with Obama, and they were very unhappy with George W. Bush,and so the fact that he is making his first foreign trip to Ottawa, and this early in his administration, is huge.”
By taking his first trip to Canada, Obama is following a sometime tradition for United States presidents. Ronald Reagan was one of those who made Canada his first official foreign visit.
Canadians have come to expect the first-visit honor ever since, though former President George W. Bush, a former governor of Texas, took his first trip to Mexico instead. (To avoid an international brouhaha, the Bush White House insisted the Mexico trip, to the ranch of former President Vicente Fox, was an unofficial visit, and that the first official presidential foreign trip was to Canada.)
The Obama White House is eager to avoid any similar slight, on matters stylistic or substantive. Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, said before leaving Washington that the president was “very eager to make the trip.” Paul Cellucci, a former ambassador to Canada under Bush, said Obama would be wise to strike a friendly tone.“As he deals with strong allies like Canada, I think he is going to have to listen to them,” said Cellucci. “You don’t want to go down the road of a trade war, if we’re getting all this energy from Canada and it’s a reliable source of energy. It’s not Venezuela, it’s not the Middle East. Why would we want to jeopardize that?”
Intellpuke: You can read this article by New York Times journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg, reporting from Ottawa, Canada, in context here: " target="_blank">www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/world/americas/20prexy.html?hp
New York Times journalist Ian Austen contributed reporting to this article.