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Obama, Canada's Harper will have plenty to talk about

The president ventures north for his first foreign trip in office.

February 01, 2009|Andrew Malcolm

President Obama went all over the Mideast and Europe last summer and spoke with 200,000 close friends in Berlin but had no time to visit the Americas.

Of course, how much good did it do Sen. John McCain to visit Canada, Mexico and Colombia?

Anyway, Obama will make his first foreign trip as president on Feb. 19 to Canada. He'd better take his inaugural overcoat.

The 44th president will probably save Vancouver for next year's Winter Olympics. Which means he'll most likely travel to Toronto, where the stadium has a roof, thankfully. Or he'll go up to Ottawa, the world's second-coldest capital, where citizens skate through downtown on the frozen Rideau Canal waiting for a hockey game to break out.

Wherever he goes, Obama will meet with Stephen Harper, Canada's president.

Relax! Harper's not really the president of the Great White North. He's prime minister. For now anyway.

But in the summer of 2007, candidate Obama told a labor (labour for Canadian readers) rally in Chicago that one of the first things he'd do in the White House is tell "the president of Canada" that he wants to renegotiate parts of the allegedly job-gobbling North American Free Trade Agreement.

Since he knows better now and has already won Ohio and Pennsylvania, that Obama promise may be, in a Nixonian kind of phrasing, no longer operative. But Harper, whose country is the U.S.' largest energy provider, and Obama will have plenty to talk about anyway. Both are political pragmatists. By Canadian standards, Harper is a conservative, which on the U.S. political spectrum would make him about as conservative as, say, Ted Kennedy.

Their two countries have by far the biggest bilateral economic relationship in the world, with about $1.6 billion in trade flowing back and forth each day. That's more than $1.1 million per minute, even better than Obama's fundraising.

And, as it happens, both countries' economies are in recession right now.

Don't tell Daily Kos, but Obama, like President Bush in Iraq, favors (favours) a U.S. troop surge of perhaps 30,000 into Afghanistan, which may take a little selling. A recent BBC America/Harris Poll shows barely one-third of Americans support such an order. Goodbye, honeymoon.

Also like Bush, Obama would like more NATO combat troops in Afghanistan, where Canadians have loyally fought since Day 1 of the ongoing but unsteady Taliban-overthrowing. But their costly casualty involvement is an increasingly emotional issue at home. Harper has vowed his country's military involvement there ends in 2011, period.

As president-elect, Obama met in Washington with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon to reassure that amigo.

Relations between Canada and what Canadians call "the States" have improved considerably since the War of 1812, when British troops assaulted Washington and torched a now-famous white house where Obama currently resides.

Americans easily forget, however, that that little bit of neighborly (neighbourly) arson was in retaliation for American soldiers sacking the city of York, now Canada's economic capital and named Toronto.

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andrew.malcolm@latimes.com

For more Top of the Ticket, go to latimes.com/ticket.

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