WASHINGTON – Barack Obama travels to Ottawa this week on his first foreign trip as president, eager to show a wildly receptive worldwide audience that he represents a new era of American leadership ready and willing to listen to his country’s closest allies.
Obama will make a six-hour day trip to Parliament Hill on Thursday amid growing concerns in Canada that protectionism is on the rise in the United States – fears stemming from the controversial “Buy American” provision contained in the $787 billion economic stimulus package he’ll sign into law two days before his northern jaunt.
Given that atmosphere, the White House says Obama’s discussions with Prime Minister Stephen Harper will focus heavily on trade issues and the economy. But the president has another goal in mind as well.
A State Department official who’s working on the visit says Obama hopes to send a message to those beyond Canada’s borders: he’s a multilateralist who intends to consult America’s traditional allies.
That’s in stark contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose policies angered and alienated even some of America’s closest friends.
“This is what Obama is so good at,” David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Sunday.
“We’ve seen it when he reached out to Republicans to listen to their concerns about the stimulus package soon after his inauguration. This is a president who likes to get as many different viewpoints as possible. Will he do everything that Canada wants? Probably not, but he’ll certainly listen very carefully and very sincerely.”
To that end, some have speculated Obama will reiterate his commitment to free and open trade between the U.S. and Canada during his visit – both privately to Harper, and publicly, in his remarks at a Parliament Hill news conference.
High-profile environmental groups, however, are urging Obama to reject Harper’s sales pitch on another issue: the Alberta oilsands.
The prime minister is expected to propose a North American climate and energy pact that will include the tarsands, even though they’re Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Obama’s visit has a training-wheels element to it.
It will be the first foreign visit organized by members of Obama’s presidential staff. Many of the advance team arriving ahead of the U.S. president to scout locations are so new to their jobs they don’t yet have their business cards printed up.
Logistically, Ottawa is a less complicated foreign destination because of its proximity to Washington – it’s in the same time zone and there are no serious irritants complicating the Canada-U.S. relationship. Four of the last seven American presidents have made Canada their initial foray beyond their friendly borders.
“Let’s face it – Ottawa is closer to Washington than Fort Myers,” Biette said, making reference to a trip Obama made last week to the recession-ravaged Florida city.
“It’s a relatively easy trip to make, and the relationship is already a warm and friendly one. It’s not like he’s going to the Middle East.”
But U.S. diplomats say Obama’s decision to come to Canada first – even for a brief visit – is no small achievement.
Other countries were lobbying to be first and people all over the world are clamouring for some attention from the man who’s not only one of the most popular American presidents in recent history, but also a huge global celebrity.
Obama’s visit to Ottawa represents a sizable opportunity to get Harper’s perspectives and Canada’s priorities onto the White House radar screen in the early days of his presidency.
The trip will also highlight a stark contrast between the two men. Obama is still enjoying high public approval ratings after being swept into office on a message of hope and change, and hundreds of Canadians are expected to crowd Parliament Hill on Thursday just to catch a glimpse of his motorcade.
Harper, on the other hand, is hanging onto power and slipping in the polls.
“These days, Harper sustains a rickety minority government by adopting liberal policies that are completely foreign to his political nature,” the Huffington Post’s Giles Snade recently wrote.
“An awkward man at the best of times, these painful efforts are like witnessing the public performance of a country musician trying to learn reggae.”