Obama's visit to Ottawa will be short, but possibly sweet

His tour is classified as a 'working visit' but that's what both sides want

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The Gazette, Sunday, February 8, 2009

Barack Obama normally thrives on a great public occasion at an historical venue. Even before winning the U.S. presidency, he spoke outdoors to a huge throng in Berlin last summer, clearly inviting comparison to John F. Kennedy's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech in 1963, and Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, famously declaring, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Well, the House of Commons in Ottawa doesn't have the symbolic resonance of Berlin in the Cold War, but it's a great room, and it does have a history of important speeches by foreign leaders making joint addresses to Parliament. After all, it was here that Winston Churchill made his famous "Some chicken, some neck" speech in 1941, at one of the darkest hours of the Second World War.

As for American presidents, Kennedy spoke here on his first foreign visit in 1961. The most famous paragraph in that speech is today carved in stone at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa: "Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies."

Reagan made a memorable address as part of an overnight state visit in 1987, which included a working session at the Prime Minister's Office, a working lunch at 24 Sussex, and a state dinner at Rideau Hall, where in his reply to the governor-general's toast he said that Americans looked forward to the day when they could toast such an occasion in fine California wines. Which, is how wine got included in the Free Trade Agreement, and beer was not.

Obama has gone where Kennedy and Reagan have been before, but will do so not in Ottawa. There will be no joint address when Obama visits Feb. 19, for the very good and simple reason that the House is in recess next week. The White House knew this when they chose the date for the visit, which is probably one of the reasons they chose it.

Thus, there will no great public occasion in Ottawa, in fact, virtually no public occasion at all. It's a working visit, billed as all business between Obama and his host, Stephen Harper. It's not even clear that they'll get to Sussex for a quick lunch, which is just as well, since the place is a dump. They might as well have sandwiches brought in from the parliamentary cafeteria on the fifth floor of the Centre Block. There will be the usual courtesy call by the leader of the opposition, Michael Ignatieff, and Obama and Harper will have a joint news conference after making a grand stroll through a Hall of Honour draped with flags of both countries. That's it.

From touchdown to takeoff of Air Force One, the entire visit will last six hours, with nearly an hour of driving time to and from Ottawa airport. Obama will be home in time for dinner at the White House and to help his girls with their homework.

Delicate Canadian sensibilities are in play here. While much has been made of the fact that Obama is restoring a tradition of Canada being a new president's first foreign stop, it's pretty minimalist.

The White House is essentially disposing of an obligation. But it's not as if they don't have things to do back home. It would have been nice to see Michelle Obama in a ball gown, but would a black-tie state dinner have been an appropriate message in current economic circumstances? It would also have been the hottest ticket in modern Ottawa history, and in that sense a huge headache to organize. A quick in-and-out works for a new White House just getting its legs. It also works for the U.S. Secret Service, in that there will be no public events, which isn't to say there will be no security, or no advance work. On one Reagan visit, a U.S. Air Force DC-9, painted the same colours as the president's plane, disgorged an advance team of nearly 100 people. The entire Canadian advance team could have fit in a four-seat single engine Cessna.

But this doesn't mean the visit won't be consequential. Working visits can be very productive, as was the first George Bush's first trip to Ottawa in 1989. He came in the morning and left in the afternoon, after a working lunch at Sussex and a press conference on Brian Mulroney's front doorstep. Nobody suggested we were being snubbed. Get over it.

It's not as if Harper and Obama won't have a lot to discuss, from economic recovery to trade to Afghanistan. The getting acquainted part is also important. Anyone who suggests all the important work is done by staff doesn't understand how these things really work.

These are two guys from the same generation - Obama is 48, and Harper is 49. They're both whip smart. They should get along famously.

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