How Harper fared at the Obama news conference

It sounded like Harper garnered a modest, but undeniable, personal allusion from Obama

Beyond the policy substance in what President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to say today, two questions were in my mind as I settled in to watch their joint news conference.

Firstly, would Harper get what his staff clearly hoped for most out of this event—some telling sign of the beginnings of a personal rapport between the two leaders?

Secondly, would Harper be entirely overshadowed, or might he succeed in putting his stamp on some aspect of the session, steering the give-and-take onto his preferred topics?

To me, it sounded like Harper garnered a modest, but undeniable, personal allusion from Obama, and also managed, near the end of the session, to set a particular tone, and draw Obama into an exchange, on border security.

Harper’s staff emphasized in the run-up to the visit that the two men are close in age and both have young families. The point seemed a bit forced. So I can only guess that the PMO enjoyed a frisson of excitement when Obama indeed alluded to their kids in a comment on combating global warming.

“My hope,” he said, “is that we emerge from this process firmly committed to dealing with an issue that ultimately the Prime Minister’s children and my children are going to have to live with for many years.”

A small thing, perhaps, but who knows what might matter as the men get to know one another?

Harper generally sounded confident in the news conference. He spoke at length, and seemed to warm up as he went along. To my ear, his most forceful remarks came late—and pretty much required a reaction from Obama.

The Prime Minister was talking about border security when he shifted rhetorical gears, from addressing the press to more broadly speaking to Americans.

“I just want to make this clear to our American friends,” Harper said in a tone that began to sound rather stern. “The view of this government is unequivocal: threats to the United States are threats to Canada.”

He went on, taking aim, although without saying so, at persistent American notions of Canada as somehow soft on terrorism. “We as Canadians have every incentive to be as cooperative and alarmed about the threats that exist to the North American continent as do the government and the people of the United States.”

Listening to this, and taking in Harper’s urgent tone, Obama evidently felt challenged to say something about it. At this point, he sounded like he was genuinely reacting to Harper, rather than speaking along predetermined lines, or using phrases he had recited many times before.

“Let me just say, to echo what the Prime Minister said, we have no doubt about Canada’s commitment to security in the United States as well as in Canada,” Obama said. “Obviously we’ve got long-lasting relationships, around Norad, for example. The same is true with respect to border security. There’s been extraordinary cooperation and we expect that that will continue.”

The words weren’t dramatic, but they did grow out of the moment. I’m not sure if this will amount to much, but I do know Harper has been preoccupied with border “thickening” for well over a year. He had been frustrated by his inability to get the George W. Bush administration to seriously address the way security measures are slowing trade and travel. Today’s press conference exchange on the matter now ensures that Obama didn’t leave Ottawa without realizing Harper’s frustration on this file.

So Harper succeeded in garnering a nod from Obama to the fact that they are both fathers of young children, and he managed to generate at least one somewhat spontaneous moment with the President at their one public event of the day.

Yet I’m not one of those who believes that, going forward, the personal dynamic between them will truly be the defining factor in the bilateral relationship. Listen closely, and Obama sounds like a President unusually attuned to the calendar of global summits and multilateral meetings—the formal agenda of world diplomacy.

He made precise references to no fewer than three important summits coming up in April alone: the NATO heads of state and government meeting Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany, where Afghanistan will be a key topic; Summit of the Americas in Trinidad; and the G20 summit in London, which could be the next critical point for coordinating reaction to the global recession.

Obama evidently has all these upcoming summits in mind—he sprinkled allusions to them through his answers. (He also referred to key United National climate change conference in Copenhagen next December.) He’s clearly thinking in terms of opportunities—formal, structured, planned opportunities—to build consensus around just about every important policy file.

For a country like Canada, this approach should offer a trove of opportunities. Obama will need allies at each summit. Canadian politicians and officials should seize the chance to build working relationships around those meetings, and the especially the inevitable planning sessions of officials and ministers that lay the groundwork for the big events.

Ultimately, a high-profile visit like today’s only matters to the degree that it sets the agenda for the many no-profile meetings that follow.

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