PRESIDENT Obama s first foreign trip last week was, fittingly, to Canada. The visit was more important than most first encounters between presidents and prime ministers.
Both nations are facing a formidable recession, and have economies especially in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario heavily affected by the deep crisis in the domestic auto industry. Plus, there was a need on the part of the new President to soothe ruffled feathers and ease tensions with what is, after all, the United States most important ally.
Some of these, frankly, stemmed from Mr. Obama s campaign trail remarks last year about perhaps tweaking NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and from the Buy America provision in the stimulus package he signed into law.
Many Canadians also quietly resented the high-handed way in which the Bush administration frequently dealt with them, especially over homeland security issues. So while it was by no means a major summit, it was considerably more than a get-acquainted meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
According to Canadian diplomats, the new President handled himself very well, which should reassure those still worried about his relative inexperience in foreign affairs. The two men have some things in common. Both are still in their 40s, and each is something of a political anomaly.
The Liberal Party has overwhelmingly dominated Canadian federal politics for decades, but Mr. Harper, the leader of the relatively new Conservative Party, led his troops to their second straight election victory last October. He was also one of the very few foreign leaders to find President George W. Bush something of a kindred spirit though among his countrymen, that was anything but the case.
During a brief, joint press conference, the men seemed to indicate they d gotten along well, though Mr. Harper, who has never been accused of an excess of charm, felt obliged to lecture the new president a bit on the evils of protectionism. President Obama good-naturedly indicated he intended to grow trade, not contract it.
The two did indicate that they had made progress working to resolve their differences on a range of environmental issues, one area in which President Obama is much more likely to see eye-to-eye with Canada than President Bush was.
In the final analysis, however, both leaders know their nations have far more to unite than divide them. President Obama showed his political skill by not trying to use his tremendous popularity to upstage his host, and only later displayed his common touch by unexpectedly visiting a farmers s market and buying a key chain, some maple leaf cookies, and a fried doughnut called a Beaver Tail, said to have enough cholesterol to fell an army. That the President politely declined to eat it on the spot indicated another quality much to be desired in any leader: common sense.