The comfort factor

Obama was relaxed and friendly during his meetings with Harper and Canadian ministers

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The Gazette, Sunday, February 22, 2009

The three-point agenda of the power lunch between Barack Obama and Stephen Harper determined the pecking order of who got to sit at the table with them last Thursday in the Senate speaker's lovely Tudor dining room.

The points were covered in Obama's and Harper's opening statements at their joint news conference after Obama's 31/2-hour whirlwind working visit to Parliament Hill.

The press conference was an extremely impressive performance by both men. There is a difference between taking a brief and knowing a brief, and both Obama and Harper were in command of theirs.

As for the agenda, the three points were recession and recovery, energy and the environment, Afghanistan and global security. Thus, the pecking order of those invited to lunch from the Canadian side: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

"It was a little tentative at first," Cannon said later, "but it quickly became very informal and relaxed. Neither one of them was looking at notes."

Well, these are not two guys who need talking points in front of them (Ronald Reagan famously referred to 3x5 cards, and he won the Cold War). Flaherty later said Obama seemed very comfortable in his own skin, and "very personable."

On the economy, there was an immediate focus on co- ordinating the bailout by Washington and Ottawa of the North American auto industry. It's not very complicated: Canada has a 20-per-cent share of the industry, so whatever Washington's number turns out to be on Phase 2 of the bailout, Ottawa will be in for one-fifth.

Obama's top economic adviser at the White House, Larry Summers, is his designated point man on the auto file, and he was sitting across from Flaherty. The political class will reach its own conclusions on why Flaherty was there and not Industry Minister Tony Clement, who has the auto file on his desk. But Flaherty is the guy signing the cheques, and his riding in the Oshawa-Whitby area is home to General Motors of Canada, which is definitely feeling the pain.

Moreover, there was a larger discussion of Obama's $780-billion economic rescue plan, and Harper's stimulus package in Flaherty's budget.

Wouldn't Obama like to have a deficit like Canada's, which represents only two per cent of GDP, and not nearly 10 per cent of American output, equivalent to Canada's entire GDP? Similarly, Cannon was at the table for the discussion on Afghanistan, rather than Defence Minister Peter MacKay, because of the larger context of global foreign policy. This is no reflection on MacKay, who has worked hard to master complex defence policy and procurement files.

On energy and the environment, Harper and Prentice have successfully engaged the Obama administration in linking the two. The president and prime minister announced the beginning of a "clean energy dialogue." It would have been a more persuasive beginning had they named personal envoys, as Reagan and Brian Mulroney did on acid rain in 1985, culminating in the acid-rain accord of 1991, a signature achievement. Even so, it's a beginning.

The environment is a file in which results are measured in decades and nothing is ever enough to satisfy the clamorous demands of interest groups, the most ungrateful activists on the face of the Earth. There was a discussion of storage of carbon emissions, a process in which Canadian industry has taken a lead, notably in a huge project in Saskatchewan.

The oil sands might be dirty oil, as Obama used to say, but that was then, when he was running, and this is now, when he's governing.

When invited to go there at the news conference, he politely declined. Oil is oil, and Canada, which is America's largest source of oil and natural gas, represents both proximity and security of supply, guaranteed in the NAFTA, which contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he is clearly in no hurry to re-open, on the environment, labour standards, or anything else.

That, too, was then. This, also, is now.

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