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Obama arrives in Canada

The president lands in Ottawa and is greeted by Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean. Obama will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and opposition leader Michael Ignatieff.

February 20, 2009|Mike Dorning

OTTAWA — President Obama made a seven-hour pit stop in this snow-draped Canadian capital Thursday, an inaugural foreign trip as president in which he sought to reaffirm good-neighborly relations and encountered crowds almost giddy at his presence.

Obama used the short visit to reassure the United States' largest trading partner of his support for robust cross-border commerce, announce an agreement on a modest "clean energy dialogue" between the two governments, and praise the sacrifices of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

If short on substance, the day marked a departure from the uncomfortable tone that characterized relations during George W. Bush's presidency, especially after Canada balked at joining its closest ally in the invasion of Iraq.

In contrast, the enthusiasm for Obama shown by those who turned out on Ottawa's slushy streets was a rare display of pro-American sentiment in Canada. A crowd of several thousand greeted the president on the lawn of the Parliament complex, many having waited hours in a light snowfall.

As Obama's motorcade passed through downtown, supporters held up signs, including one that read "Yes We CANada." And one Ottawa bakery was serving commemorative "Obama tails," a version of the local "beaver tail" fried-dough pastry, but with a maple syrup-flavored frosting in the shape of an Obama "O."

Acknowledging his popularity in a country where polls show him with higher approval ratings than in the U.S., Obama closed his news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper by saying: "I want to also, by the way, thank some of the Canadians who came over the border to campaign for me during the election.

"It was much appreciated," he said, drawing laughter.

In office for a month, Obama appeared to have completed his first official foreign visit smoothly, though he did lose his footing for a moment on an icy tarmac as he was walking back to Air Force One for departure.

At the news conference with Harper, Obama said he wanted to "grow trade and not contract it," setting a considerably more enthusiastic tone than he had during the presidential campaign, when he had called for renegotiating the NAFTA treaty that governs U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico.

During a Democratic presidential debate on the eve of the Ohio primary, Obama had argued for threatening to withdraw from NAFTA as a "hammer" to force concessions on labor and environmental standards, causing jitters in Canada where, though his remarks were seen as election posturing, the economy remains hugely dependent on exports to the U.S.

But as president, Obama has signaled a wariness of the rising protectionist impulses around the globe that most fear could worsen the economic crisis.

"Now is a time where we've got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism," Obama said, "because as the economy of the world contracts, I think there's going to be a strong impulse, on the part of constituencies in all countries, to see if they can engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies."

Obama also made his first public comments on the increase in U.S. troops he ordered for Afghanistan this week, leaving open the possibility that he would add more troops after a strategic review is completed.

He said he did not want to "prejudge" the result of the ongoing Afghan review, which he said would be finished in two months. He had ordered an increase of 17,000 troops, short of a request for 30,000 made by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

"I ordered the additional troops there because I felt it was necessary to stabilize the situation," Obama said.

Canada has a contingent of 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to depart by 2011 under a deadline set by the Canadian Parliament. The mission is highly sensitive in a country that sees itself in a peacekeeping mold, and whose troops have taken heavy casualties in Afghan combat.

Obama noted that 108 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and said he "certainly did not press the prime minister" for any commitment to extend the deadline.

"All I did was to compliment Canada on the troops that are there," the president said.

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mdorning@tribune.com

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