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Economy Tops Agenda as Obama Visits Canada

February 19, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama attended talks on the economy, trade and the environment during his trip to Canada Thursday. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama journeyed out of the country today for his first time since taking office. He went north to Canada for talks on the economy, trade, the environment, and Afghanistan.

Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama arrived in Ottawa late this morning, honoring a tradition that new U.S. presidents travel first to Canada. The Canadian governor general, Michaelle Jean, was on hand to meet him.

And a crowd of about a thousand watched as the president’s motorcade pulled up on Parliament Hill. There, he greeted Prime Minister Stephen Harper and drew a huge cheer when he stepped out to wave to the public.

The prime minister and the president held private talks and a working lunch.

STEPHEN HARPER, Prime Minister of Canada: Today, Canada and the United States are closer economically, socially, culturally, in terms of our international partnerships, than any two nations on the face of the Earth, closer friends than any two nations on the face of the Earth.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two countries’ economies also are heavily intertwined, and both are mired in recessions. Canada lost a record 129,000 jobs last month, raising the unemployment rate to a four-year high of 7.2 percent.

And today, the U.S. Labor Department announced nearly 5 million Americans are on unemployment benefits, a record high.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: We know that the financial crisis is global, and so our response must be global.

Obama, Harper discuss NAFTA

KWAME HOLMAN: The economic troubles also put a spotlight on the U.S.-Canadian trading relationship, the world's largest. Canadians have raised questions about the "buy American" section in the economic stimulus law that President Obama signed on Tuesday.

BARACK OBAMA: I recognize the concerns of Canada, given how significant trade with the United States is to the Canadian economy. I provided Prime Minister Harper an assurance that I want to grow trade and not contract it. And I don't think that there was anything in the recovery package that is adverse to that goal.

STEPHEN HARPER: We have agreed, in Canada and, you know, all the major countries of the world, through the G-20, we agreed to pursue economic stimulus measures, not just to stimulate our own economies, but to recognize that we have a synchronized global recession that requires policies that will not just benefit ourselves, but benefit our trading partners at the same time.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two men also vowed to work together on adding labor and environmental protections to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

BARACK OBAMA: My hope is, is that, as our advisers and staffs and economic teams work this through, that there's a way of doing this that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada.

STEPHEN HARPER: Our position is that we're perfectly willing to look at ways we can address some of these concerns, which I understand, without, you know, opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement.

Energy, Afghanistan on the agenda

KWAME HOLMAN: Beyond trade, the leaders signed an agreement to cooperate on developing clean energy technology. Canada is the largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. It also has the world's second-largest oil reserves, much of it in oil sands, but extracting it yields large amounts of greenhouse gases.

BARACK OBAMA: I think the clean energy dialogue is an extraordinary beginning, because right now there are no silver bullets to solve all of our energy problems.

STEPHEN HARPER: Both of our governments are making large investments in things such as carbon capture and storage and other new technologies designed to fight climate change.

KWAME HOLMAN: The day's major foreign policy focus was Afghanistan. Canada has 2,800 troops there, but they're set to leave by 2011. President Obama took note of their sacrifice.

BARACK OBAMA: I certainly did not press the prime minister on any additional commitments beyond the ones that have already been made. All I did was to compliment Canada on not only the troops that are there, the 108 that have fallen as a consequence of the engagement in Afghanistan, but also the fact that Canada's largest foreign aid recipient is Afghanistan.

Harper vowed strong cooperation

KWAME HOLMAN: Closer to home, Prime Minister Harper vowed the closest cooperation on continental security.

STEPHEN HARPER: There is no such thing as a threat to the national security of the United States which does not represent a direct threat to this country. We as Canadians have every incentive to be as cooperative and alarmed about the threats that exist to the North American continent in the modern age as do the government people of the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: Afterward, Mr. Obama paid a surprise visit to a downtown Ottawa market, greeting shoppers and posing for pictures.

BARACK OBAMA: I understand you've got some Canadian cookies here shaped like maple leaves.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also met with Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff during his seven-hour stay. Then he headed home, saying he'd like to visit Canada again, once it warms up.