In Canada, Obama Warns Against Protectionism
By Michael D. Shear
OTTAWA -- Meeting with Canada's prime minister on his first official trip abroad, President Obama warned against a "strong impulse" toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said efforts to renegotiate NAFTA will have to wait.
In a joint press conference after meeting for almost two hours at Parliament Hill here, Obama said he wants to find a way to keep his campaign pledge to add labor and environmental standards to the continent's trade agreements without disrupting trade.
"Now is a time where we've got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism," the president 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 we -- they can
engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies."
Obama said during the campaign that he would consider opting out of NAFTA if he proved unable to renegotiate it. On Thursday, the president said that he raised the issue with Harper but indicated that he hoped advisers and staff from both countries could work out the issue.
The trade discussion came as Canadians have expressed concern in recent days over the "Buy American" provision that was added by Congress to the $787 billion stimulus package that Obama signed into law this week.
Harper told reporters that he has "every expectation" that the U.S. will abide by trade rules which forbid most such preferences. But he used strong language to indicate how seriously the country takes that issue.
"If we pursue stimulus packages, the goal of which is only to benefit ourselves, or to benefit ourselves -- worse -- at the expense of others, we will deepen the world recession, not solve it," Harper said.
Obama and Harper also pledged to work together in the fight against terrorism, especially in Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers have been fighting and dying for years.
In his first public comments since ordering an additional 17,000 troops to the war-torn country earlier this week, Obama said that "it was necessary to stabilize the situation there in advance of the elections that are coming up."
The president declined to say how long the troops will remain there, saying that such a statement would pre-empt the 60-day review of policy in the region that he has ordered. Harper likewise declined to say whether his country's troops will remain beyond the 2011 authorization that exists already, though he described a constrained long-term goal for the effort there.
"We are not in the long term, through our own efforts, going to establish peace and security in Afghanistan. That, that job, ultimately, can be done only by the Afghans, themselves," Harper said.
The president's comments about trade revived a controversy from his campaign, when he was forced to respond to a Canadian assessment that his criticisms of NAFTA were nothing more than campaign rhetoric.
At the time, a top adviser to then-candidate Barack Obama left Canadian officials with the clear impression that his boss would not rush to renegotiate long-standing trade agreements if elected president.
"Much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the Canadians concluded in a memo after meeting with Austan Goolsbee, a senior campaign aide and now a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.
Obama was chasing support among Rust Belt union workers and insisted that he would press to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement to include tougher labor and environmental standards. He even suggested that the U.S. might opt out of NAFTA if the standards couldn't be improved to America's satisfaction.
Some long-time observers of the U.S.-Canada relationship said Obama's position appears to validate the impression that Canadian officials got from the meeting with Goolsbee.
"It sounds like [Goolsbee] was right," said former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, who served as Ambassador to Canada during George W. Bush's first term. "It looks like [Obama's] softened that quite a bit, to put it mildly."
That could anger some of Obama's staunchest supporters in the labor movement, who blame NAFTA for sending American jobs oversees by not requiring a level playing field in the areas of labor and the environment.
A top Obama aide said Tuesday that the president's main message to Harper would be to reassure him that the U.S. intends to maintain a robust trading relationship with its neighbor.
Asked several times whether Obama plans to press Harper to reopen NAFTA negotiations at today's meeting, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough repeatedly stressed the need for continued trade.
"This is no time to -- for anybody to give the impression that somehow we are interested in less rather than more trade," McDonough said. "And that's what -- that's the message that he'll underscore."
The president's trip to Canada was the traditional visit early in his term. He disappointed many Canadians who had looked forward to seeing him at a public event. Instead, he only waved briefly to a crowd of about 2,000 hearty people waiting in the snow as he walked into his meetings.
He did surprise reporters with a brief stop at a converted, indoor farmers market in an historic stretch of Ottawa after his meetings. He bought a key chain that he purchased with Canadian currency, telling reporters that he was continuing a tradition of buying knick-knacks whenever he was away.
"I was looking for a key chain and a snow globe for my daughters," he said.
He also purchased a Beaver Tail, a Canadian pastry, for his kids. The baker at the market refused to take his money, saying, "It's for your daughters. It's not for you."
Obama and Harper also pledged cooperation to revive the continent's closely linked economy and signed an agreement to work toward joint development of clean energy technology.
Obama and Harper said the new "dialogue" on science and technology will help speed the path toward cleaner fuels from coal and oil.
"It will advance carbon reduction technologies. And it will support the development of an electric grid that can help deliver the clean and renewable energy of the future to homes and businesses, both in Canada and the United States," Obama said.
"And through this example and through continued international negotiations, the United States and Canada are committed to confronting the threat posed by climate changed," he added.
Posted at 5:05 PM ET on Feb 19, 2009
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