Page last updated at 02:21 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Obama seeks to woo Canadians

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

In a few hours from now we will know if the political earthquake that got Barack Obama elected in the US is going to be followed by aftershocks of Obamamania that will follow him wherever he travels.

An image of Barack Obama near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada
Mr Obama has high approval ratings in Canada

Canada is an interesting testing ground for the theory.

On the one hand, Canadians appear to like Mr Obama rather more than they like their own politicians - he has scored approval ratings here of nearly 90%.

On the other, reasonable, multilateralist, compromise-loving Canada doesn't really seem to do mania. You imagine the arrival of the Beatles here would have provoked civilised curiosity, and performances by the early Elvis might have prompted polite applause.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a Conservative who leads a minority government, and it would be fair to say that he has avoided the temptations of charisma in doing so.

Obama's TV mastery

The contrast with the new American president could hardly be greater.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. File photo
Unlike Mr Obama, Mr Harper does not like giving news conferences

Mr Obama's election in November last year was an international sensation making him one of the most easily recognisable faces on earth.

He is using his easy mastery of live television to explain to Americans how he believes his interventionist style of government will ease, and then end the recession.

Mr Harper's own modest electoral success a month earlier - when he increased his minority government's share of seats in Ottawa - went more or less unnoticed.

He does not like giving news conferences, and Canadian reporters say he likes to control what questions they are allowed to ask.

They will not have to worry too much about how they are getting along in spite of those differences, of course, - Mr Obama is only in Canada for a few hours.

Key issues

The visit is really more of an extended lunch than a fully-fledged summit - but nonetheless there are major issues at stake here, and we may get a clue as to how Mr Obama intends to conduct himself on the world stage from his first foreign trip.

Mr Obama's own political instincts are towards centrism and compromise - a style which should go down well in Canada

First, there is trade.

Canada has been a beacon of financial soundness in recent years after its own flirtations with debt and deficit in the past - but its future prosperity depends more on the economic health of its southern neighbour than its own sound finances.

It is Canada rather than Iraq or Saudi Arabia which is America's main source of foreign oil, for example, and a company like General Motors is a North American business these days rather than an American one (it has both factories and a huge network of dealerships north of the border).

So Canadians are worried by a "Buy American" clause in the stimulus package approved last week on Capitol Hill. If that is the first hint that America is flirting with protectionism, then it is bad news for the whole trading world, but it is particularly bad news for Canada.

Then, there is Afghanistan. Canadian troops are there, fighting and dying alongside the forces of the United States and Britain - but the Canadians have a firm out date of 2011, and I have not heard a single Canadian argue that should change.

But what if Mr Obama were to ask for that deadline to be extended, or even for more troops to be sent to back up the American reinforcements now on their way?

It would be very much the kind of question George W Bush might have posed after all - would it really make much difference that the request was being phrased more elegantly and put more delicately?

And finally there is the question of the Alberta Tar Sands - the source of some of the crude oil which Canada sells to the US.

Environmental groups on both sides of the border argue this is a particularly dirty way to extract and refine oil, and they want change.

Tight security

They are hardly the kind of issues which reach final resolution during these getting-to-know-you sessions, but it will be interesting to see how Mr Obama handles them.

The early signals are that in each case he will try to make America seem like an easy ally rather than a hard one as Mr Bush so often did.

So the Afghanistan issue will be discussed but there will be a push for a commitment; Canadians will be re-assured about US protectionism - and a way forward will be sought to clean up Alberta's oil, as well as use it.

Mr Obama's own political instincts are towards centrism and compromise - a style which should go down well in a country whose political culture is based on a kind of ineffable reasonableness.

You might find, by the way, that you do not get much of a chance to judge any of this for yourself since when the two leaders meet the press reporters have been told they are confined to a total of four questions shared between the two leaders (two in English and two in French).

That suggests that the media management is in the hands of the reticent Mr Harper, rather than his more glamorous counterpart.

And if that seems a little unhelpful to journalists, consider the plight of the Canadian public.

So tight is security that anyone who considers braving the snow and Arctic air to attempt to get a glimpse of the American leader is likely to be disappointed.

Mr Obama will be ferried from point-to-point in his new armoured limousine and it is possible he will not actually be seen in public at all.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific