A liberal and a conservative make it work

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Sun Media, Friday, November 18, 2011

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama aren't obvious political soul mates. The Canadian prime minister is very much a conservative, while the American president is a liberal Democrat.

But in a way, that makes it easier for them to do business than it was for Harper with George W. Bush, the arch-conservative who once famously called Harper "Steve."

Moreover, Harper at 52 and Obama at 50 belong to the same cohort and grew up listening to the same music.

And they became partners, on top of being neighbours, with the 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, a deal that saved the North American auto industry.

As former prime minister Brian Mulroney observed at the time: "Obama can talk to the Europeans all he wants, but he's only got one next door neighbour who is now also his business partner."

As evidence of this, consider Obama's opening remarks at their joint news conference at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to announce the Beyond the Border agreement between the two countries.

"I'm very pleased to welcome my friend and partner, Prime Minister Harper, back to the White House," Obama began. "Whenever we get together, it's a chance to reaffirm the enduring alliance between our nations, the extraordinary bonds between our peoples, the excellent co-operation between our governments, and my close personal friendship to the prime minister.

"Stephen," he I believe this is the 11th time we've sat down and worked together, not including our many summits around the world ... In Stephen, I've got a trusted partner."

As third party endorsements go, it doesn't get any better than that.

For his part, Harper has understood from the beginning that the Canada-U. S. relationship is the most important file on his desk. And as a political pundit, in a conversation back in August 2008, he predicted Obama would easily defeat the Republican nominee, John McCain.

Harper and Obama can also, as Mulroney famously put it, "disagree without being disagreeable."

Obama kicked approval of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project down the road past next November's presidential election. Obama was playing to his own environmental lobby, which is using Keystone as a proxy for its protests against the Canadian oilsands. What the celebrity protesters don't say is that the coal-fired U.S. energy industry has a carbon footprint 64 times larger than the oilsands.

"We did discuss the proposed Keystone XL pipeline," Obama acknowledged, "which is very important to Canada." Asked if he thought Obama's decision was driven by politics, Harper declined "to comment on the domestic politics of this issue or any other issue here in the United States."

But only days after the Keystone announcement, Obama invited Harper to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

As for the Beyond the Border agreement, it was a bit of a stretch on Harper's part to call it "the most significant step forward in CanadaU.S. co-operation since the North American Free Trade Agreement."

NAFTA was a big deal, a treaty ratified by Congress, Parliament, as well as Mexico. Beyond the Border will enhance both security and trade, within the purview of both executive branches, with no need for legislative approval.

It's an important moment. As for the relationship between president and prime minister, it's the best since Mulroney and the first George Bush.

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