Barack Obama comes to Ottawa today, and you have to wonder why. He will see nothing of the capital and the capital will see nothing of him.

This supernova will be little more than a flash across our northern sky. His visit is as perfunctory as a campaign stop. The tone and timing is more about domestic politics and presidential logistics than bilateral relations.

Why leave Washington at all? For all that he and Stephen Harper are doing in public today, they could have talked over a webcam. Or a BlackBerry.

The answer is this visit is more obligation than celebration. The U.S. president thinks he should make his first foreign trip to Canada, which isn’t necessarily the tradition, but is still something we should honour and appreciate.

Sadly, the visit isn’t a celebration of a successful relationship between peoples who are more alike than any two on earth. After the unpopular George W. Bush, it is an opportunity for renewal, and both countries should have waited until it could be done right.

The truth is, there is nothing that compels a president to visit Canada today, in the midst of an economic crisis. When Americans think of Canada, there is “no fierce urgency of now.”

Simply put, Obama is coming to Canada because it is convenient. It allows him to say that he came here to meet his counterpart, exchange pleasantries, do some business and fly home for supper.

It also allows his inexperienced White House to test things before he makes a serious visit abroad. In that sense, Canada is Obama’s shakedown cruise.

Because he frets that Americans will think he isn’t taking care of business at home, this isn’t a state visit.

He won’t stay overnight. He won’t bring his wife. He won’t sip champagne at a banquet with the Governor General (who, desperate to see him, will appear at the airport).

Most important, the U.S. president won’t address Parliament. He wants his first major speech to be to Congress later this month.

For his part, Harper knows that Obama is much more popular than he is. He knows the U.S. president will challenge him on the environment. And he worries Obama could emerge as a third force in Canadian politics, aligning himself with the opposition here.

So, a lightning visit by a phantom president discharging a diplomatic duty suits Prime Minister Harper as much as it does President Obama. Canadians are the losers.

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