WASHINGTON — Campaigning in rust-belt Ohio during last year's Democratic primaries, Barack Obama promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, despised by organized labor. But as he prepares for a seven-hour visit to Canada on Thursday, his first foreign trip as president, Obama is sounding much more cautious about altering the deal.
"I think there are a lot of sensitivities right now because of the huge decline in world trade," Obama said Tuesday in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The relationship between the world's largest trading partners will figure prominently in talks between Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, where Canadian officials are chafing at "Buy American" provisions in the $787-billion economic stimulus package.
Canada's participation in the Afghanistan war also will be a key issue as Obama ramps up the U.S. troop commitment. The Canadian Parliament has set a 2011 deadline for withdrawal of the country's troops, which currently number 2,800.
Sensitive to controversy over the troops after 108 Canadian combat deaths in Afghanistan, Obama told Canadian television that he would not make a "specific ask" of Harper, such as a request to extend the deadline or increase the number of troops. But, Obama said, "what I will be communicating is the approach we intend to take."
With Obama in office less than a month and making just a quick stop in Canada, analysts said it was unlikely the two leaders would work out any substantive agreements. Instead, they said, the visit would serve as an opportunity to get acquainted.
"This is the start of a conversation, a new relationship," said Jodi White, a Canada scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
Harper's conservatives are ideologically out of sync with the pump-priming politics of the Obama administration. Only the near-fall of his minority government in December converted Harper to the merits of stimulus spending.
But the Canadian government reacted badly to provisions Congress added to its stimulus package that bar spending on a project unless the iron, steel and manufactured goods involved are made in the United States. Amid furious lobbying by Canada and other U.S. trading partners, the Obama administration succeeded in weakening the provision by requiring the law comply with U.S. international trade agreements.
Obama sent a reassuring signal Tuesday, saying he wanted to "enhance the ability of trading partners like Canada to work within our boundaries." But Harper said Friday that Canadian officials "remain concerned" by the provisions.