Friends and allies

Obama and Harper gave outstanding performances as leaders in command of their briefs

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, February 20, 2009

Barack Obama spent seven hours on the ground in Canada, yesterday --a visit so quick, he was home in the White House in time to help his daughters with their homework.

Nevertheless, the Canadians were very glad he restored the tradition of a new American president making Canada his first foreign visit. It was a custom followed by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, two presidents with whom Obama has much in common as a rhetorical leader blessed with a certain physical grace.

But there was no rhetoric yesterday, no joint address to Parliament because the White House chose the date with the full knowledge that the House was in recess this week. A working visit, not a state visit, so there was actually no need for the Governor-General to greet Obama at the airport, except that the arc of her personal narrative is as compelling, in its way, as his own.

Their half-hour together in the Billy Bishop Lounge was clearly more than an exchange of niceties between heads of state, and commanders-in-chief, but an animated conversation between two people whose story is called: Yes, We Can.

A working visit, and in fact a full working day in presidential scheduling, is not to be made light of as a drive-by, especially given the urgent nature of Obama's domestic economic agenda, from selling his rescue package to further bail outs of Wall Street and Detroit, which adds up to US$2-trillion or about half again as much as Canada's GDP.

"Working visits should not be taken as a slight; they can be extremely productive," says former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who had dozens of meetings over nine years with three U. S. presidents.

This working visit began with an unscheduled grin, but no grip. Greeting Obama at the Peace Tower entrance, Stephen Harper pointed to the friendly crowd gathered on the snowy lawn below. "Why don't we go out and take a quick look," suggested Obama as he and the Prime Minister stepped outside for a brief wave from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass spanning a portal of the Peace Tower. They did it again on the way out after the meeting and closing news conference.

A scheduled 10-minute tete-a-tete in the PM's Centre Block office became 33 minutes that spinners briefed the media on as proof that Harper and Obama had hit it off. See? The meeting went three times longer than planned! This is one of the oldest tricks in the book of scheduling and advance.

Harper began as http://www.facebook.com/string_image.php?ct=AAAAAQAQt_B273VfYuh_kGucQEGdgQAAABdxMM1DZAuOd-Yf5zEMqJypJRwKgFbmyB8%2C&fp=8.7&state=0&highlight=he always does, by reading his opening statement entirely in French first, an elegant gesture that gives the American news channels fits. But CNN stayed with all four minutes of it. Obama began by saying, "It's a great pleasure to be here in Iowa," before catching himself on the "wa" and deftly turning it to "Ottawa." Good save. Old campaign lines die hard. And he ended by saying he looked forward to coming back, as soon as it warms up.

In between, both Obama and Harper gave outstanding performances as leaders in command of their briefs, in no need of talking points and, quite clearly, eager to be on the same page. They went out of their way to help each other out.

For example, on Afghanistan, where just this week Obama committed another 17,000 U. S. troops in addition to the 36,000 already there. Since Canada asked the United States and NATO to step up last year as a condition of our staying on until 2011, did Obama ask Harper to extend beyond that date? If he is stepping up, how could we step aside from his first request at burden sharing in global security?

Obama deftly sidestepped the question. "I certainly did not press the Prime Minister on any additional commitment," he said. Instead, Obama added, "I wanted to say thank you" for Canada's "extraordinary" effort in the mission; "you've put at risk your most precious resource, your brave men and women in uniform." Very nice and certain to be appreciated by our military and their families.

From his side, Harper's best moment was his response to the last question where he quite spontaneously riffed that any threat to the United States is a threat to Canada. "I love this country," Obama concluded, "we couldn't have a better friend and ally." They will meet again at NATO and G20 sumits in the spring, but the next time as two guys who hit it off and who, yesterday, both hit it out of the park.

 
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