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OTTAWA, Ont. President Obama offered the nation s largest trading partner assurances yesterday of his support for robust cross-border commerce in a seven-hour visit to Canada that marked his first foreign trip as President.
In a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Obama said he wanted to grow trade and not contract it, setting a considerably more enthusiastic tone than during the presidential campaign, in which he had called for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement treaty that governs trade with Canada and Mexico.
During a Democratic debate on the eve of Ohio s presidential primary, Mr. Obama had argued for threatening to withdraw from NAFTA as a hammer to force concessions on labor and environmental standards.
But in Canada, Mr. Obama trod carefully on the issue of trade. Now is a time where we ve got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism, Mr. Obama 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 they can engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies.
His message served as a reminder of last year s private assessment by Canadian officials that candidate Obama s frequent criticisms of NAFTA were nothing more than campaign speeches aimed at chasing support among Rust Belt union workers.
Yesterday, some observers said Mr. Obama s position appears to confirm that notion. That could anger some of Mr. Obama s staunchest labor supporters, who blame NAFTA for sending U.S. jobs overseas by not requiring a level playing field on labor and environment matters.
But some allies said they were giving him more time to make good on his promise and praised him for finding a sophisticated way to express support for trade and changes to NAFTA.
I am happy for him to frame his way of positioning the issue any way he wants, as long as he actually delivers on the issue, said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen s Global Trade Watch Division. If down the road, Obama doesn t deliver on the policy, there will be a whole lot of really upset people.
The trade talk came as Canadians expressed concern over a Buy American provision that Congress put in the $787 billion stimulus package Mr. Obama signed into law this week.
Mr. Harper said he has every expectation the United States will abide by trade rules which ban 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, Mr. Harper said.
While in Canada, Mr. Obama made his first public comments on the U.S. troop increase he ordered for Afghanistan this week, leaving open the possibility he would add more at the end of a strategic review.
The President said he did not want to prejudge the result of the review, to be completed in two months. He had ordered a boost of 17,000 troops, short of the 30,000 sought by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Canada has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan. They are set to depart by 2011.
Mr. Obama said he certainly did not press the prime minister for any commitment to extend Parliament s deadline.
Mr. Obama appeared to have completed his first official foreign visit smoothly, though he lost his footing for a moment on an icy tarmac as he walked to Air Force One to depart.
The visit appeared to be a success as Mr. Obama not only checked off each of his stated concerns from the border, to autos, to free trade but offered a rosy view of future relations.
I expect four years from now, the U.S.-Canada relationship will be even stronger than it is today, Mr. Obama said.
I expect increased trade, I think we ll see increased integration of efforts on energy and various industry, and I think that s to be welcomed.
The President is enormously popular in Canada, and his visit generated huge enthusiasm.
As his motorcade passed through downtown, supporters held up signs, including one that read Yes We CANada.
Several thousand greeted him from the lawn of Canada s Parliament Building, with many waiting hours in a light snowfall to see his arrival. Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper offered the crowd a quick wave before walking inside for their meetings.
Before leaving Canada, Mr. Obama s motorcade stopped at the By Ward Market, a farmers market in Ottawa.
Mr. Obama bought a key chain, but his main destination was a bakery where he tried to buy maple leaf-shaped cookies for his daughters, Malia and Sasha.
But the baker behind the counter refused Mr. Obama s Canadian money, indicating the sweets were for his children.
The meetings between the two officials were largely a chance for them to get to know one another. The only formal agreement announced covered cooperation on the development of environmental technology.
Mr. Obama also met with opposition party leader Michael Ignatieff before departing for Washington.