GUADALAJARA, Mexico - Barack Obama downplayed Canadian frustration over his country's so-called Buy American provisions Monday, arguing that complaints about U.S. protectionism were over-the-top.
On a shared stage with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the U.S. president said his country's controversial procurement rules came up at their so-called "Three Amigos" summit.
Obama said Canada and the United States will seek freer trade among provinces, states, and cities, but he dismissed the complaint frequently heard north of the border that Americans are shutting down trade.
"I want to assure you that your prime minister raises this every time we see each other," Obama told a news conference as the summit wrapped up.
"(Harper) is expressing his country's concerns ... I think it's also important to keep it in perspective: We have not seen some sweeping steps towards protectionism."
Obama said the Buy American provision - which limits foreign companies' access to construction projects under the US$787 billion stimulus bill - was perfectly legal.
He said he didn't like the measure but, given the need to get stimulus money flowing, didn't feel it warranted a fight that could have stalled the bill in Congress.
As for future contracts, he suggested mechanisms could be adopted under which states, provinces, and cities liberalize procurement practices "that expand the trading relationship."
"But I do think it's important to keep this in perspective," Obama added again.
"This in no way has endangered the billions of dollars of trade taking place between our two countries."
Harper said he was pleased that premiers formed a common front last week when they agreed to freer trade between provinces and states. He said the file would now be taken up by federal ministers, civil servants and the leaders themselves.
On a separate issue, Obama cracked a joke in Canada's direction.
He warned that Canada will continue to serve as a whipping boy in the highly charged U.S. debate over the future of health care, which has seen town hall meetings erupt into scuffles this summer.
Warnings about the danger of adopting "Canadian-style socialized medicine" are a ubiquitous refrain among critics of Obama's intended reforms.
"I suspect that you Canadians will continue to get dragged in by those who oppose reform - even though I've said nothing about Canadian health-care reform," Obama said.
"I don't find Canadians particularly scary, but I guess some of the opponents of reform think they make a good boogeyman."
Obama wants to extend health coverage to all Americans and allow for greater public-sector involvement alongside the current network of privately run insurance companies.
He said Americans are spending too much money on health care, with results that are too poor, and that too many families are being bankrupted by health bills because they don't have coverage.
But he quickly added that Canada's model - the single-payer public system - bears little relationship to the system he wants to create.
Obama repeated his frequent refrain that the U.S. health system evolved as a privately run entity over the decades, and there's no reason to move it in a radically different direction now.
But his legion of conservative critics argue that Obama's plan will ultimately kill the private insurance industry, increase government spending, and result in higher taxes. Just like Canada.
Harper steered clear of the debate.
When asked whether there were any elements of the Canadian system worth emulating, he merely replied: "Canadians support their own health-care system. As for the rest of this question my only answer is that this is an American debate, and the responsibility of the provinces."
North America's leaders ended their two-day summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, pledging a united effort on economic recovery, trade, swine flu and climate change.
They also discussed the political crisis in Honduras.
The leaders came out in defence of the country's ousted president, Manuel Zelaya.
Critics have argued the U.S. could do more to restore Zelaya to power, but both Harper and Obama brushed those comments aside.
Obama said those in Latin America who complain about U.S. non-involvement are the same people who complain about "Yanqui" interference when the United States does get involved.
Harper cut in, joking that the only time Americans get accused of non-interference is when they're not being accused of interference.
The leaders were also asked about Canada's decision last month to impose visas on Mexican travellers - a move that has proven highly controversial in Mexico.
A screaming front-page headline in Monday's Guadalajara Publico newspaper focused on the government's refusal to back down on the policy: "Canada, Inflexible."
The Mexican president said he understood that the visas were not intended as a slight at his country, but were being imposed because Canada's refugee system was being flooded by bogus claimants.
He said he hoped to see that refugee system reformed, so that the visa measures could be rescinded.
"It certainly gets in the way of a good relationship," Calderon said. But he added that the dispute should not be allowed to detract from other Mexico-Canada initiatives of mutual interest.