President Obama Welcomed in Ottawa | The Canadian Encyclopedia


President Obama Welcomed in Ottawa

Nothing about a presidential trip is left to chance. When Barack Obama visited Ottawa, even the brief break set aside for him to talk privately with his officials, and perhaps touch base with Washington before his final news conference with Stephen HARPER, was meticulously planned.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 9, 2009

President Obama Welcomed in Ottawa

Nothing about a presidential trip is left to chance. When Barack Obama visited Ottawa, even the brief break set aside for him to talk privately with his officials, and perhaps touch base with Washington before his final news conference with Stephen HARPER, was meticulously planned. Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella's Parliament Hill office was offered to Obama for this interlude in a packed itinerary. U.S. security officers checked out the office a couple of weeks in advance, and arrived the morning of the visit to replace Kinsella's telephone with a secure one. Even the bust of Abraham Lincoln, Obama's presidential patron saint, perched on a shelf behind the desk he used, was not a happy coincidence. Kinsella had recalled seeing it in another senator's office, and borrowed it specially for the occasion.

And, of course, Obama warmly thanked Kinsella for the customized decor. In 6¾ hours in the Canadian capital on Feb. 19, his charm never faltered. The grace notes - his trade of radiant smiles with Governor General Michaëlle JEAN just after Air Force One touched down, his "I love this country" declaration, and, yes, his purchase of that sugary beaver tail - made the visit a public smash. Yet there were also core political and policy issues in play. The key White House figure involved in orchestrating the trip, Maclean's has learned, was James Jones Jr., Obama's national security adviser. Jones has at least two reasons to be interested in Canada: Afghanistan and Alberta's oil sands. "He was central," said a senior Canadian official. "He certainly has a lot of familiarity with Canada - quite knowledgeable and seemingly quite engaged."

Jones is a retired four-star Marine general who stands six foot four. After leaving active service in 2007, he co-chaired an Afghanistan study group at Harvard University. Its report early last year noted that while Canada was still in the "heaviest fighting" in Kandahar, "strong opposition to the Afghan war" in Canada and parts of Europe was "threatening to fray the coalition in the next two years." Jones also headed the Institute for 21st Century Energy, a powerful business group that favours a U.S. shift toward Canada and Mexico as sources of oil, to diminish reliance on the Middle East. Jones was, until his White House appointment, on the board of directors of Chevron Corp., which has a major stake in ALBERTA'S OIL SANDS. He has promoted co-operation with Canada on developing technologies for "environmentally responsible" oil sands development.

Jones's close attention to the visit all but guaranteed the new U.S. administration would understand nuances of the Canadian government's policy concerns. Obama's transition team decided to make Canada his first foreign trip in early January, with confirmation coming from both governments on Jan. 10. "We obviously were pushing through a number of different channels - bureaucratic, diplomatic, and political," said an official in the Canadian government. After Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, his first telephone conversation with Harper was on Jan. 23. They settled on making the economy the top priority for the visit, but also set aside time to discuss closely linked energy and environment issues, and international security, with an inevitable emphasis on Afghanistan.

That phone chat set in motion top-level planning for the big day. Although Harper relied to some degree on Canada's Ambassador Michael Wilson in Washington, and senior mandarins in Ottawa, his trusted political staff took over for the key meetings. Patrick Muttart, Harper's deputy chief of staff in charge of strategy, and a marketing specialist who was a key architect of recent Conservative election strategy, led a Canadian delegation to Washington on Feb. 6. (Muttart has since announced he is leaving the Prime Minister's Office, likely for a job in the U.S. private sector.) Six days later, Guy Giorno, Harper's chief of staff, was back in D.C. to head the Canadian team for critical planning sessions. Jones was the top U.S. official in the talks. Given his established interest in Canada's status as an oil exporter, and the Harper government's long-standing desire to position Canada as an "energy superpower," it's not surprising the two sides found common ground on how to put energy on the agenda.

But the biggest item, according to advance briefings by officials on both sides of the border, was sure to be the faltering world economy. Since Ottawa would be Obama's first international trip, he wanted to send an economic recovery message that went beyond CANADA-U.S. RELATIONS. "The President," a senior official in his administration told Maclean's, "has a way of looking at foreign policy issues that is broader than just the tendency to look at things in bilateral terms." Harper needed to find a way to support Obama on economic themes, positioning Canada as relevant in advance of April's G20 summit in London, a key gathering of leaders of industrialized and developing nations.

Obama made Harper's job easy by handing Canada a global branding coup a few days before the trip. "I think Canada has shown itself to be a pretty good manager of the financial system in the economy in ways that we haven't always been here in the United States," he said in an interview with CBC. "And I think that's important for us to take note of, that it's possible for us to have a vibrant banking sector, for example, without taking some of the wild risks that have resulted in so much trouble on Wall Street."

That glowing presidential endorsement left little doubt about Canada's stance on the RECESSION - small economy with lessons in prudent management for the big guys. On AFGHANISTAN, the potential pitfall for Harper was any hint that Obama was unhappy about Canada's plan to withdraw its troops in 2011. But a Feb. 10 visit to Ottawa by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, defused that issue. Mullen declared that he "literally" never breathed a word about the exit date in a meeting with Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada's chief of defence staff. Instead, Mullen and Obama both stressed their hope that Canada would step up with more help for the Afghan economy, and to shore up the government in Kabul.

So Canada was being praised for stolid financial regulation, and let off the hook on the sole international security question that might have made Harper squirm. That left energy and the environment as the key potential friction point. From the outside, there looked to be ample reason to worry. Consider that Obama's energy and climate-change czar, Carol Browner, spearheaded efforts, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the 1990s, to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. She's a former aide to Al Gore. It's a safe bet that Browner might harbour misgivings about the emissions-intensive oil sands process. Yet Obama sounded more in tune with Jones's view of energy as a national security issue. "Canada and the U.S. can collaborate," he said in the CBC advance interview, "on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they're emitted into the atmosphere."

With soothing words flowing from the U.S. on every major file, all the Harper crew really had to worry about were intangibles. Would the Prime Minister look dull or second-rate beside a President who arguably generates more excitement than any since John F. Kennedy? Was it possible that others would steal the spotlight? After all, as the first black Governor General, Jean's encounter with the first black President would be a striking moment. And Michael IGNATIEFF, the Liberal leader, who would also be chatting with Obama, had direct links to the new White House, through his long-standing friendships with the likes of Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, who would be travelling with the President.

As details of the day were revealed, it seemed Jean and Ignatieff were being nudged to the margins. Jean was to greet Obama at the airport, but their meeting was to be very short, and early word was that it would be recorded with still photographs only, not videotape. As for Ignatieff, he would get perhaps 20 minutes with Obama, but at the nondescript government airport facility at the end of the day, far from the stately Parliament Hill backdrops, and after Obama and Harper held their joint news conference - leaving no chance that a reporter's question about the President's meeting with the Liberal leader might vie for attention with coverage of Obama's encounter with Harper. In what was already going to be a short visit, the parts taking place off the Hill might have been an afterthought. As it turned out, though, there was plenty of Obama magic to go around.

Air Force One touched down at 10:30 a.m. Fresh snow made the jackets of the RCMP honour guard lining the tarmac look their most vivid red. Jean greeted Obama, and together they delivered the day's first indelible image: it's not often Obama's smile meets a true rival. At one point as they strolled, Jean tossed back her head with laughter. But after they ducked inside the terminal, a chat that might have been a mere protocol formality quickly turned serious.

Jean, a Haitian-born immigrant, raised the plight of her native country. Obama suggested they keep in touch on the issue. "The President made clear," James Steinberg, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said later, "that this is something that he did care about, and wanted to confer and get the views of others, about how we could do a better job in supporting economic and social development in Haiti."

Barely a half-hour on Canadian soil, and already the trip had produced a front-page photo and an intriguing foreign-aid story. At 11:20 a.m., Obama's motorcade, including 10 Ottawa police cars, two limousines and two ambulances, wheeled out of the Ottawa airport toward downtown. The route had been cleared, but clusters of people stood on overpasses, and along the road that hugs the picturesque Rideau Canal. About 2,500 well-wishers awaited him on Parliament Hill, but they had been warned to expect little more than a glimpse of Obama as he ducked from his limo into the main door. But they were in for a surprise. As Harper shook his hand, Obama said, "Do you mind if we go outside and take a quick wave at some of the people there?"

And so they did, Obama looking at ease, Harper considerably stiffer, behind a Plexiglas barrier at the foot of the Peace Tower. The PM's aides, however, say the undeniable body language didn't represent any real discomfort on Harper's part. "I don't think anyone was surprised by the wave," said a senior government official. "You've got a bunch of people cheering who've come out on a snowy day, you say hello."

Indeed, Harper appeared to relax as the day progressed. He walked Obama into the vaulted stone rotunda of Parliament's Centre Block to sign the House and Senate guest books, and meet a few parliamentary officials. Then they climbed the stairs to the Prime Minister's Hill office. There was a chance for photographers to snap pictures, after which Harper cleared them out with a simple, "All right, guys, gotta go."

Harper and Obama then began what was scheduled to be a 10-minute one-on-one session with no officials in the room. Harper's aides had touted this as an unusual opportunity for them to truly get acquainted. In fact, the tête-à-tête in the intimate, wood-panelled office lasted more than 30 minutes, the two men sitting in chairs angled toward each other, separated by a small table.

There was no rushing them. "They decided when it was over," said a Canadian official, "much to the consternation of political aides on both sides, who are looking at agendas and timelines and all that." They then called in officials, including Jones for Obama and Giorno for Harper. Steinberg later briefed American media on the meeting, noting that it touched on broadening Afghanistan strategy beyond the military mission. "They both agreed," he said, "that in the long term success was going to depend on development and governance-related issues, and we needed to have a common approach on that."

After that, Harper and Obama walked through the halls of Parliament to lunch in Senate Speaker Kinsella's private dining room. Kitchen staff from the Prime Minister's residence, 24 Sussex Drive, had set up in the Senate kitchen, and prepared a meal featuring Pacific tuna, Nunavut char, and prairie bison. Nine officials from each government sat facing each other across a long, rather narrow rectangular table, paired off according to roles. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, for instance, sat across from Summers, while Environment Minister Jim Prentice faced Browner. Despite the high-powered help, the talk centred on Obama and Harper. "This was predominantly a meeting between the two leaders," said an official who was in the room. "The others were there to hear the conversation in all its nuances."

It was after lunch that Obama ducked into Kinsella's office, complete with the Lincoln bust, to use the phone and talk with his officials, before he and Harper held their joint news conference. This would be the most public event of the day, and the key test for Harper. The venue was the Reading Room, one of Parliament's more handsome spaces, with an ornate ceiling and distinctive 1920s-vintage murals. There was room for 40 U.S. reporters and an equal number of Canadians, and time for two questions from each camp.

Each leader strode up to a podium, Harper never appearing intimidated by the company. Both leaders answered questions at length, touching, as expected, on the economy, Afghanistan, and energy and the environment. The closest thing to a real announcement was the so-called Clean Energy Dialogue, a pledge from both governments to assign senior officials to co-operate on developing technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's the sort of approach Jones has advocated to make continued oil sand development acceptable even to those determined to fight climate change.

Two moments in the news conference stood out. First came Obama's declaration of love for Canada, albeit on the basis of some slight connections. "I'm a little biased here because I've got a brother-in-law who's Canadian and I have two of my key staff people who hail from Canada," he said. "And I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally."

The second interesting twist came late in the session, when Harper shifted to an urgent tone about Canada's vigilance on terrorism. "I just want to make this clear to our American friends," Harper said. "The view of this government is unequivocal: threats to the United States are threats to Canada."

Harper has long been frustrated by U.S. fears that Canada is soft on terror, which leads to pressure for cumbersome security measures on the border. "Let me just say, to echo what the Prime Minister said," Obama responded, "we have no doubt about Canada's commitment to security in the United States as well as in Canada."

After facing the press, Obama was slated to head straight back to the airport. Then came the day's big surprise. James Blanchard, who was U.S. ambassador to Canada under president Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, said he was among those who urged the White House to make sure Obama didn't leave Canada without reaching out to the people. "He is enormously popular there," Blanchard said, "and he did not want to be shut behind closed doors." On the other hand, Blanchard said announcing anything fun would create a circus: he remembered thousands showing up to watch Hillary Clinton skate on the Rideau Canal in 1995.

Obama gave gawkers no chance to gather. His motorcade made an unannounced detour to Ottawa's historic ByWard Market, where he picked up a key chain with a moose, two maple-leaf-shaped cookies, and a fried-dough pastry called a beaver tail. Even the RCMP officer directing security for the visit, Supt. Michael McDonald, said he had only a few minutes' notice. The choice of treats can't have been spontaneous. Grant Hooker, founder and co-owner of Ottawa-based BeaverTails Canada Inc., said he tapped contacts at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa to forward an invitation to Obama's advance team. As well, Hooker's company fried up thousands of special "ObamaTails" at the Canadian Embassy in Washington on the President's inauguration day. Ailicec Gonzalez, 31, manager of Le Moulin de Provence, the bakery where Obama found his cookies, chatted with him. "Very friendly guy," she said. "I'm from Venezuela, and he was asking me, 'How are you taking the weather here?' I said good."

Obama left ecstatic crowds of bystanders who happened to get a look at him in the market. His last stop was the airport, where he was scheduled to meet Ignatieff for 20 minutes. The Liberal leader brought along MP Bob RAE, his foreign affairs critic, and Ian Davey, his principal secretary; Obama brought Jones and Steinberg into the meeting. Obama broke the ice by saying he'd read some of Ignatieff's books. Ignatieff mentioned that they have a number of friends in common. Their talk lasted 34 minutes. "I've been lucky in my life to meet famous people, and some people seem smaller when you meet them," Ignatieff commented afterwards. "He was just as big."

Few of those who saw Obama that day - from political insiders to the teenaged girl who made him his beaver tail - would argue. But if the impression Obama left was of a President who more than lived up to advance hype, questions remain about the trip's lasting impact on bilateral relations. Harper wasted no time following up with a quick trip to New York City, to exploit the afterglow of close contact with the extraordinarily popular President, and by dispatching a series of cabinet ministers to Washington. If the planning and execution of the Ottawa visit is any indication, Jones might be the man for Canada-U.S. relations watchers to keep an eye on - whenever it's possible, that is, to pull their gaze away from the mesmerizing spectacle of the President himself.

Maclean's March 9, 2009