Obama, Harper to talk economy, energy in Oval Office meeting

WASHINGTON - On the eve of a possible federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will spend an hour this week in the most storied office in the world next to a man who remains wildly popular in Canada - U.S. President Barack Obama.

WASHINGTON - On the eve of a possible federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will spend an hour this week in the most storied office in the world next to a man who remains wildly popular in Canada - U.S. President Barack Obama.

Harper's visit to Washington will certainly lack the love-in qualities of the president's inaugural trip abroad to Ottawa in February, but sitting down with Obama in the Oval Office for an hour on Wednesday is undoubtedly a marquee moment for an embattled leader with yet another election possibly looming.

"It's a hardly a pittance," Paul Frazer, a onetime Canadian diplomat who's now a consultant in Washington, said Monday.

Frazer disputed any suggestion that Obama was paying Harper short shrift with the hour-long working visit.

"They talk, they get on the phone with each other - this is 2009, and these are modern men," he said.

"The old style of sitting across from each other for hours flanked by delegations is not the style and has not been the style of leaders from Canada and the United States for a long time."

As well, Frazer pointed out, Harper knows where much of the real power in Washington resides - in Congress. To that end, the prime minister will trek to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet with leading congressional Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

"The president is certainly an extremely important player in this city, but he's not the only one," Frazer said.

"There are other people in town who need to meet the prime minister and hear his views. He'll be meeting with critical players."

Harper will voice his opposition to U.S. trade protectionism in those meetings, an official in the Prime Minister's Office said Monday in a briefing in Ottawa.

Harper will be as "aggressive and persistent as he's always been" regarding the so-called Buy American provisions in the U.S. economic stimulus package, Dimitri Soudas said.

About US$280 billion of stimulus money is being spent at the state and local levels on infrastructure projects that Canadian businesses cannot compete for.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day has sent the Americans a proposal aimed at getting Canada exempted from the provisions. He's appointed a negotiator, as did the U.S. recently, to hash out the issue.

But in Harper's first White House meeting with Obama, energy, the economy, security and Afghanistan will likely be the top items of discussion.

In advance of this weekend's G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, the two men will discuss economic recovery efforts and the so-called clean energy dialogue between the U.S. and Canada.

The war in Afghanistan is also on the agenda. Canada's "position is clear" that Canadian troops will not stay beyond 2011, Soudas said, but Harper and Obama will talk about what role Canadians will play in reconstructing the country.

The U.S. is pondering sending even more troops to Afghanistan amid the growing threat of roadside bombs there, even as some legislators are beginning to question the wisdom of bolstering the American presence.

The prime minister's visit takes place in an atmosphere that might not seem Canada-friendly to a casual observer - Obama's pick for ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, has yet to be confirmed by Capitol Hill legislators or installed in Ottawa, and Canadian manufacturers continue to gripe about Buy American.

But David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Canadians need to keep in mind what's currently dominating the political landscape in the U.S. capital - the blistering health-care debate.

"There's a lot going on here and you have to put what Canada wants out of this visit in the context of what's going on in Washington right now," Biette said.

"The prime minister can head over to Ben's Chili Bowl if he wants, but the president won't be coming with him."

The holdup about Jacobson, Biette pointed out, has nothing to do with Canada. In fact, it's been a show of political gamesmanship between Democratic Senator Chris Dodd and Jacobson himself, who worked in the White House filling vacant positions before he was named ambassador.

"Dodd had someone he wanted in a certain position and Jacobson said No, and so Dodd held it up, which is something senators can do," Biette said.

"It's not about Canada - but if something happens in the U.S. and it affects Canada, unfortunately Canada tends to make it about itself even if it isn't."

Rather than Obama treating Canada dismissively, Frazer said, his relationship with Harper is by all appearances a warm and respectful one.

"I think they have a healthy understanding of where the other's coming from," he said.

"They come from the same generation, they recognize in each other a very smart politician, and Obama is eager to work well with his neighbours. This is going to be a friendly and productive visit."

Latest From ...
Most Popular From ...