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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How Harper fared at the Obama news conference

  1. “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.”

    The personal dynamic between leaders is almost never important for international relations directly. However, the media tends to personalize interstate interactions with headlines like “Martin to Bush: Back OFF”, while pundits draw personal analogies about the relationships between states (eg. supporters of the war in Iraq, comparing Canada to a guy whose buddy is in a barfight).

    So the events of today matter indirectly, because they impact how the media will frame US-Canada relations. When Diefenbaker didn’t go on heightened alert during the Cuban missile crisis (saying there wasn’t enough evidence about Soviet missiles in Cuba) it was interpreted as an unjustified personal slight against Kennedy, a man Diefenbaker clearly disliked. Alternately the [perceived] close relationship between Reagan and Mulroney meant that Mulroney’s actions on US-Canada relations (like free trade) were framed as Brian loves Ronald.

    In both cases, Diefenbaker and Mulroney’s actions probably originated in some conception of the Canadian national interest. However, persistent framing can matter, and make politicians afraid to make the right decision, for fear of reinforcing some negative frame (eg. Harper = Bush lite). Missile defence is probably a good example of that – it would have cost Canada nothing, and created high tech jobs and bidding opportunities for Canadian firms, while giving Canada more say about North American missile defence. However, both Martin and Harper feared being labeled as too pro-American.

    • Maybe, just maybe Canadian’s [ us ordinary folks who get to vote everynow and then] thought missle defence a dumb idea!

  2. Stephen Harper made a statement relative to the concern about threats to the US…did it take a visit from the President to elicit this? Stephen should speak his political and practical mind more often.
    Overall I sense the meeting went well and highlight further that both countries need to stand together on many issues.

  3. I’m interested in seeing whether the ease and comfort with which Obama deal’s with the press – so far- makes any impression on PMSH. That it’s not the end of the world if a reporter asks a question. Most of the time it’s not a real challenge and occasionally it can be a useful exercise.

  4. Wow, way to take a stand and stick it to Obama, Mr. Harper!

    I would just like to forcefully, strongly, challengingly state that I really appreciate the coverage of Macleans on this trip and have been very impressed by it/ HA! Take that, Coyne, Wells, O’Malley! Touche!

  5. I wonder how long it has been since there hasn’t been a Quebecer in the crowd. Not the Prime Minister or the leader of the Opposition or anyone else in view. I’m not counting the GG, she is separate from the actual government.

  6. 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.”

    Like the time Harper wrote this:

    Canadians Stand With You
    Wall Street Journal | 3/28/03 |


    Today, the world is at war. A coalition of countries under the leadership of the U.K. and the U.S. is leading a military intervention to disarm Saddam Hussein. Yet Prime Minister Jean Chretien has left Canada outside this multilateral coalition of nations.

    This is a serious mistake. For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need. The Canadian Alliance — the official opposition in parliament — supports the American and British position because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values. Disarming Iraq is necessary for the long-term security of the world, and for the collective interests of our key historic allies and therefore manifestly in the national interest of Canada. Make no mistake, as our allies work to end the reign of Saddam and the brutality and aggression that are the foundations of his regime, Canada’s largest opposition party, the Canadian Alliance will not be neutral. In our hearts and minds, we will be with our allies and friends. And Canadians will be overwhelmingly with us.

    But we will not be with the Canadian government.

    Modern Canada was forged in large part by war — not because it was easy but because it was right. In the great wars of the last century — against authoritarianism, fascism, and communism — Canada did not merely stand with the Americans, more often than not we led the way. We did so for freedom, for democracy, for civilization itself. These values continue to be embodied in our allies and their leaders, and scorned by the forces of evil, including Saddam Hussein and the perpetrators of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That is why we will stand — and I believe most Canadians will stand with us — for these higher values which shaped our past, and which we will need in an uncertain future.

    Messrs. Harper and Day are the leader and shadow foreign minister, respectively, of the Canadian Alliance.

  7. This meeting should be showed to every PR,/journalism student in the country.

    Wow, Frank luntz is in heaven…

  8. Mr Harper had a terrific press conference and showed why he is the best Canadian Leader we have had in a generation.

  9. You, Mr. Geddes? You have used the vile “going forward” where you mean “henceforth”? For shame, sir!

    • At the end of the day we are all going forward ….. ( belch ) …..

    • “Henceforth” means “from this time onward.” It implies a turning point, that things were different before this particular moment. As an adverb that places actions in time, one could pair “henceforth” (from now on) with “hitherto” (up to now).

      Since I’m not suggesting that before this meeting Harper’s personal relationship with Obama was the key element in bilateral affairs, it would be misleading to say that “henceforth” it won’t be. However, I’ll allow that “going forward” is a bit clunky. Maybe we could agree that “casting ahead” might have better.

      By the way, I like both henceforth and hitherto, even though, or perhaps because, of their antique ring. I once succeeded in slipping the phrase “hitherto reticent Canadian consumers” past my editors, in a business story about a surge in retail sales. One of my proudest moments as a reporter.

      • But then, when proposing that something may take place in the future, I think that “in the future” covers a lot of bases. Even at the end of the day.

        Sorry , but in one of my former lives I spent a lot of time with money managers , national and international , and I heard ” going forward ” at least 10 times a day. It was an identifying phrase among a group of people that , as a group , I didn’t like very much. I guess it’s only words.

      • Ah, good point about “henceforth,” and quite the triumph on “hitherto reticent Canadian consumers”!

        Could you work “howbeit” into a future piece? I fear for the future of that adverb. I was going to start a Facebook group for it.

        I like “casting ahead,” but my trouble with “going forward” is that you usually see it used impersonally, i.e. as a dangling participle that agrees with the subject of no verb. Somehow “as we go forward” doesn’t have the same ring to it, though. Perhaps “as time goes by”? On that you can rely.

  10. I think the usual crowd of harper haters are besides themselves today and no doubt about it. Look let’s face it Harper played it brilliantly and spot on what was needed as well he setup a nuanced approach for the future. When he was speaking directly to the Americans regarding security it was aimed directly at the appropriate ears on both sides of congress and the senate as well as their media. Harper most definitely got in front of the main items on our mutual agendas and with such finess and ease that judging by a lot of posts here and other web forums that there are a lot of people actually surprised!!! This is brilliant and I have no doubt the consequences are being played out as I type this.

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