In the Oval Office with Barack and Stephen

Luiza Ch. Savage on the leaders' meeting—and how Obama's changed the office decor


What they say is true. The Oval Office is smaller in person than it looks on TV. But it’s not that small and still impressive. So Stephen Harper must be pleased with the rarefied photo-op Barack Obama gave him by hosting him there today.


As you walk from the press briefing room through the colonnade facing Rose Garden,


past the Cabinet Room and enter the iconic curved room with the presidential seal on the ceiling, you can’t help but feel the weight of history.

It was hard to tell which particular ghosts were on the mind of outgoing Canadian ambassador Michael Wilson today as his fingertips reverently caressed the top of the elaborately carved Resolute Desk — the same one that young JFK Jr. once used as a hiding place at his father’s feet —  while Stephen Harper and Barack Obama gave their short press availability (one question per county.) I couldn’t take a picture of Wilson’s reverie because prior to being led into the room, we were specifically instructed not to take pictures of the president’s desk or anything that might be on it. I scoped it out for classified documents, or at least a presidential Macbook, but the desk was clear except for a plaque and a ceremonial pen.

Behind the desk, on a table in front of the windows that face onto the South Lawn, were a dozen picture frames holding family photos, wedding pictures, and baby snapshots of Sasha and Malia. On the floor was the yellow sunburst rug that George W. Bush had specially made to replace an older and darker one with something more “optimistic.” It’s actually quite nice, and not as garish as it looks in some photos.

The bookshelves were lined with history books, the writings of George Washington, and where Bush had previously displayed ornamental China plates, Obama had placed several early inventions including the patent model of Samuel Morse’s telegraph machine. There was also a framed pamphlet from the March on Washington of August 28, 1963 at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Near the fireplace there was also a bronze bust of King, which Obama brought in to replace a bust of Churchill that had been borrowed from the British Embassy. He kept the bust of Abraham Lincoln.


The two leaders arrived after a private meeting that lasted over an hour – significantly longer than scheduled. Outside the White House gates, a small group of young protesters, who had followed Harper all day, demonstrated against the Oil Sands, but they were overshadowed by a much larger and louder crowd called for legal status for undocumented Haitian immigrants.

(Update: Separately, a group of PETA members dressed as bloody seals were arrested in front of the Canadian Embasssy on Pennsylvania Avenue as they stopped traffic by writhing on the ground, imitating slaughtered seals. They were charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, and failure to obey.)


Inside, the leaders sat in chairs in front of the fireplace while reporters gathered behind two sofas. Cabinet secretaries Janet Napolitano (homeland security) and Stephen Chu (energy) hung back in the back of the room, as did ministers Peter Van Loan (public security), Jim Prentice (environment) and Lawrence Cannon (foreign affairs).


Obama called Canada an “outstanding partner” and used his comments to emphasize that the economy is improving in both countries.  Harper was quick to point out that this was his seventh meeting with “Barack.” He raised a few bilateral issues and talked up Canadian energy. The leaders released a report from their ministers about progress on the “Clean Energy Dialogue” which I have copied at the end of this post. It looks pretty vague.

Afghanistan was the dominating topic. With his own military commanders calling for more troops while the war rapidly loses support with the US public and some in Congress, Obama stressed that no decisions have been made on further troop increases.

“I’m going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions.  So I just want to be absolutely clear, because there’s been a lot of discussion in the press about this, that there is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I’m absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make determinations about resources.  You don’t make determinations about resources, and certainly you don’t make determinations about sending young men and women into battle without having absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be. So we are going to proceed and make sure that we don’t put the cart before the horse.”

When he was pressed on the issue of Canada’s planned withdrawal, Harper emphasized that Canada is not “leaving” Afghanistan when its military mission ends in 2011; it is merely “transitioning” to a new civilian-led phase.

Below is a transcript of their full remarks. Harper left in a limousine while his ministers – Cannon, Van Loan, and Prentice, followed behind in a gray van. He has a closed-door round table at the Council on Foreign Relations today, and meetings with congressional leaders tomorrow before jetting off to New York City to deliver a speech to a business audience.




Oval Office

11:49 A.M. EDT

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Hello, everybody.  Prime Minister Harper and I have just had an excellent conversation, reiterating the extraordinary friendship and bond between the American and the Canadian people.  We discussed both our bilateral relationship on issues of energy, our borders, issues of trade, and how we can continue to strengthen the already excellent relations that we have.

We also have discussed a range of international issues.  Obviously we’ve been partnering with Canada on improving the global economy.  We both agree that although we are not out of the woods yet that we have seen signs of stability and that both Canada and the United States are on the path to positive economic growth.  We both agree that coordination still needs to continue at the international level and are looking forward to the G20, where we can both discuss how to sustain efforts to kick start the economy, but also make sure that we’re starting to look at exit strategies and what a sustainable growth model would be long term.

We had discussions about some of the international threats that continue to exist out there.  We discussed climate change and preparations for the Copenhagen conference; Afghanistan and the need for us to move forward in a clear direction over the next several years; and the situation with Iran and the potential development of weapons and how we respond to the potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran.

So overall I just want to again publicly thank Prime Minister Harper for being an outstanding partner to the United States.  We appreciate his excellent work.  We very much appreciate the Canadian people.  And we are looking forward to seeing them next week in both the United Nations context and the G20.

PRIME MINISTER HARPER:  Well, thank you very much, Mr. President.  First of all, Barack, let me just say I really appreciate — this is our seventh time I think in some form or another we’ve had a chance to discuss some of these issues and we appreciate your time and of course both your and your country’s alliance, neighborliness, and friendship.  It’s our most important relationship in the world.  We’re always delighted to sit down and talk.

(Speaking French.)

Once again we discussed three major subjects, as I indicated we would yesterday.  First of all, the economy.  The recovery is happening, but it is fragile and we really must redouble our efforts to apply stimulus measures and get those out the door, as we’re doing in Canada, to make sure we continue to fix internationally the problems of financial institutions.  And I noted the President’s speech this week in Wall Street in this regard, which I think was an important message for everyone.

We’re planning for the G20; we’re looking forward to that.  I think that’s well in hand.  I think we’re going to have very useful and productive meetings there.  And we discussed some of these irritants that arise in our trade relationship.  Particularly I do want to mention this question of the charter flights, the NHL charter flights, which has been a difficulty in recent months.  We think we’re very close to resolving that in the next very little while.  I think we have some kind of a tentative agreement in principle and we’re working to finalize that in the next few days.

We discussed energy security and climate change.  I remind all our American friends that Canada is by far the largest supplier of energy to the United States.  And we are determined to be a continental partner in dealing with the joint — with the very linked problems of climate change and energy security.  Our two ministers, our respective ministers have provided us with a report on the clean energy dialogue, which I think shows some great progress in identifying areas of joint action.  I think the next step will be some specific projects that we can pursue.

Today, Canada is announcing a major hydroelectric project, a big transmission line in northwestern British Columbia, which has the capacity down the road to be part of a more integrated North American hydroelectric system that will be obviously part of dealing with both these problems of energy security and climate change.

And finally, as I said, we would discuss international peace and security.  And as the President mentioned, we discussed the great challenge the world has in Iran.  But we also did discuss, of course, Afghanistan.  We have a joint mission there and we certainly have very much welcomed the renewed engagement of the United States in that country and always — particularly in our sector of the country.  And of course we always value joint cooperation with the United States on defense and security matters.  And our two militaries and our civilian people are working tremendously in southern Afghanistan and we look forward to some of that work continuing.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Okay.  All right, Ben Feller.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I’d like to ask both of you:  At this point are U.S. and NATO forces winning the war in Afghanistan?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  You know, I think that what is clear is that had lacked as clear of a strategy and a mission as is necessary in order to meet our overriding objective, which is to dismantle and disrupt and destroy al Qaeda and prevent it from being able to project violence against the United States, allies like Canada, our bases and operations around the world.  So that has not yet occurred.

When I came in I had to make a series of immediate decisions about sending additional troops to ensure that the election could take place during the fighting season.  But I was crystal clear at the time that post-election we were going to need to do an additional assessment.  General McChrystal has carried out his own assessment on the military strategy, but it’s important that we also do an assessment on the civilian side, the diplomatic side, the development side; that we analyze the results of the election and then make further decisions moving forward.

My determination is to get this right.  And that means broad consultation not only inside the U.S. government, but also with our ISAF partners and our NATO allies.  And I’m going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions.  So I just want to be absolutely clear, because there’s been a lot of discussion in the press about this, that there is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I’m absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make determinations about resources.  You don’t make determinations about resources, and certainly you don’t make determinations about sending young men and women into battle without having absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be.

So we are going to proceed and make sure that we don’t put the cart before the horse.

PRIME MINISTER HARPER:  Just very quickly, to try and answer that question directly.  I certainly don’t think, notwithstanding the continued problems in many parts of the country, the fierce efforts of the insurgency, I don’t think the Taliban in any way constitutes an alternative government or any immediate threat to replacing the government of Afghanistan.  So I think in that sense, you know, we can see the progress that’s been made.  Obviously, though, we are concerned about the strength of the insurgency.  We, as I say, welcome the renewed American effort and effort of some NATO countries.

Our emphasis in Canada for some time now, particularly since we extended our mission, has been really the necessity of seeing the Afghan government accept and be able to handle greater responsibility for the day-to-day security of that country as we move forward.

Afghanistan is a very difficult country, I think.  All of our military — Canadian, American, British, those who have been highly engaged — I think have done a tremendous job moving the ball forward.  But in the end, we have to be clear that the security and sovereignty of Afghanistan can in the long term only be done by Afghans themselves.  So I think whatever we do on both sides of the border and with our NATO partners has to have that as its long-term objective.


Q    Mr. President, Prime Minister, in contrast to that smart, brief question I have a double-barreled question under the umbrella of security.

Canada and other NATO allies have set deadlines to leave Afghanistan.  Mr. President, are you worried that the U.S. will be left to carry the burden in Afghanistan?  What role would you like to see for Canada beyond 2011?  Prime Minister, do you have any advice for the President, exit strategy or otherwise?

And then on economic security, Mr. President, despite assurances not to worry, U.S. protectionism is hurting Canadian businesses, according to Canadian businesses.  And I just — we wonder if there is anything more you feel you can or that you should do about that?

And Mr. Prime Minister, your views at this stage now that we’ve seen “Buy American” play itself out?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, let me start with Afghanistan, and I’ll just reiterate what I said earlier.  We are in the process of making a strategy — a series of strategic decisions that will be sustainable, and we’ll be doing so in close consultation with our allies and our partners.

We are tremendously grateful for the extraordinary sacrifices of the Canadian military.  They have fought.  They have had staying power.  They have absorbed losses that we all grieve for.

And so I’m not worried about what will happen post-2011.  I want to make sure that given the commitments that have already been made and that are continuing that we make sure that the Canadian presence there fits into a coherent whole, and that it’s accomplishing our goals.  And our goals are to eliminate al Qaeda as a threat and, as Prime Minister Harper mentioned, I think it is important to recognize that ultimately Afghan security has to transition onto the shoulders of Afghan — the Afghan government and Afghan security forces.  And so the degree to which we are training them and building capacity, that’s something that I’m certain will be part of any long-term strategy, sustainable strategy.

On the economic front, the issue of “Buy American” in the stimulus package, I’m glad to hear that Canadians see this as — the recovery package as being so significant.  I’ve been trying to persuade the American public of precisely that fact, that we’re actually creating jobs and putting people back to work.

The “Buy American” provisions that were there, as I noted at the time, we made sure that they were WTO compliant.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not a source of irritation between the United States and Canada.  Prime Minister Harper, I want to emphasize, has brought this up with me every single time we’ve met, so he’s been on the job on this issue.  And our teams have been working together.  It appears that there may be ways to deal with this bilaterally, but also potentially multilaterally.

The provincial governments in Canada, my understanding is, are not signatories to the WTO government procurement agreements that would have preempted any of these “Buy America” agreements.  That might be one solution.  But in addition, we’re pursuing, on a bilateral track, efforts to make sure that these sources of tension diminish.

But I do want to keep things in perspective.  U.S.-Canadian trade continues to be robust.  Canada continues to be a huge trading partner to the United States.  Businesses in the United States and Canada both benefit from that trade, as do consumers.  There is no prospect of any budding trade wars between our two countries.  These are legitimate issues that have to be concerned — have to be raised, but I think it’s important to understand that on the scale of our overall trading relationship, these aren’t the — these shouldn’t be considered the dominant element of our economic relationship.

PRIME MINISTER HARPER:  Eric, first of all on Afghanistan, I think it’s important to rephrase your question, which is, Canada is not leaving Afghanistan; Canada will be transitioning from a predominantly military mission to a mission that will be a civilian humanitarian development mission after 2011.  That transition is already in place.

As you know, Canada has had a very robust engagement for some time.  We’ve actually, over the course of the last three or four years, as a consequence of that, increased our troop levels.  I think you heard what I said earlier, that what’s essential is that whatever we in NATO and our U.N. allies are doing, that we make sure that eventually this country can stand on its own two feet, particularly on the security side, where they have their primary responsibility so we can help more and more on the development and humanitarian side.

On “Buy America,” we obviously had the discussions.  The President indicated we have negotiators who are looking at a range of options.  We talked about some of those today, and we’ll be giving more detailed direction to them in terms of the kinds of options they should look at.

As you know, I agree with the President’s assessment.  We shouldn’t move the forest for the trees.  These are important irritants; they are having some real impacts.  But they are relatively small compared to the overall scale of Canadian-American trade.  But I would emphasize that it is critical at a time where we’re trying to see a recovery in the global economy, where forces of protectionism are a very significant threat, that we continue to demonstrate to the world that Canada and the United States can manage trade relations in a way that’s extremely positive and a model for other countries.

(Speaking French.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Thank you, everybody.

END                12:11 P.M. EDT


First Report to the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States of America

September 16, 2009
The Honorable Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy
United States of America
The Honourable Jim Prentice
Minister of the Environment

President Obama and Prime Minister Harper:
When you met in Ottawa in February 2009, you set out an ambitious plan for our countries to begin to build a new low-carbon energy economy together. Central to your vision was bilateral cooperation on continental environmental protection and energy trade and technology. You created a U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue, and gave us responsibility to report on ways our countries could work together on key clean energy science and technology issues.
In the months since your first meeting, each country has acted on energy and environmental issues within its own domestic policies and programs by taking action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and ensure long-term energy security. Our Governments’ commitment to collaborate on clean energy research, development, and deployment initiatives will strengthen our respective climate change policies, create new solutions to meet our energy needs in the 21st Century, and advance our collective progress towards a clean energy future.
We have each also worked with the international community as the world prepares for the meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change this December in Copenhagen. But taking our cue from your leadership, we have made progress toward a more integrated continental approach to energy and the environment.
To increase energy security and to address environmental challenges including climate change, we can achieve more through North American cooperation than the sum total of our individual domestic initiatives. At the same time, we would help the world’s largest two-way trading system operate even more smoothly. Canada and the United States share an economic space just as we share the challenges and the results of energy’s impact on our environment. Collaboration on the challenges to energy security and environmental sustainability can only strengthen our long-standing partnership.
The Clean Energy Dialogue has helped to shape several aspects of our common approach. You have tasked us to work together on three key areas:
• Develop and deploy clean energy technology;
• Build a more efficient energy grid, based on clean and renewable generation; and
• Expand research and development into clean energy.
Following your February meeting, we established joint Working Groups which met to develop plans for short- and longer-term cooperation in these three areas. We consulted experts in government, the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations, and drew on their extensive knowledge of clean energy. The Working Groups developed an Action Plan that describes specific activities we have agreed to work on jointly. We intend to go forward with all of these recommendations, which we consider to be the most promising areas for expanded or new joint projects. As a priority, Working Groups will immediately implement the following:
1. U.S.-Canada Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Collaboration
Among the clean energy technologies available, we emphasized carbon capture and storage (CCS) as one that holds enormous potential to control greenhouse gas emissions, and where bilateral collaboration
would yield impressive results. To respond to the challenges of climate change, countries around the world are exploring various options to capture and store carbon dioxide by seeking potential breakthroughs in the technology. Both Canada and the United States work with various partners on CCS initiatives, but greater results will arise from closer collaboration with each other. As Canada and the United States work towards the development of new regulatory frameworks for CCS, there will be future opportunities for collaboration and to establish complementary policies, regulations and rules governing CCS.
Under the Clean Energy Dialogue, we recommend, as a top priority, the formation of a U.S.-Canada CCS Collaboration. The Collaboration will engage Canadian and U.S. experts on CCS from the public and private sectors to share best practices and conduct joint activities. This effort will:
 Expand existing collaboration in CO2 injection and storage testing, share information from large-scale CCS demonstration projects, and work together to map CO2 sources and geological storage opportunities;
 Work towards a consistent regulatory framework for Canada and the United States, including compatible CCS project rules, standards, and monitoring, as well as verification and accounting principles;
 Hold bilateral meetings to engage Canadian and U.S. experts on CCS from the public and private sectors, to share best practices and provide updates on joint activities. The United States will host the first conference in May 2010 in Pittsburgh; the 2011 conference will be held in Canada.
2. A More Efficient Electricity Grid based on Clean and Renewable Generation
As demand for electricity continues to grow, both countries require major investments to meet that demand, replace aging facilities and equipment, and improve efficiency. This provides opportunities to upgrade the power grid, connect to clean energy sources, and promote the use of clean energy technologies. The United States and Canada will collaborate on efforts that will:
 Foster an open exchange of information, and joint participation in government-sponsored electricity research, development, and deployment (RD&D). For example, broader participation through the North American Synchrophasor Initiative (NASPI) will create a robust, widely available and secure synchronized data measurement infrastructure for the interconnected North American electric power system;
 Enhance ongoing efforts to ensure joint participation in the development of government- and industry-sponsored reliability standards, cyber security, and interoperability guidelines;
 Improve the understanding of existing and live storage potential across the Canada-U.S. grid and the role it may play in the expansion of emerging renewable energy capacity across the continent.
3. Clean Energy Research, Development and Deployment (RD&D) Framework and Roadmap
A cleaner, more secure energy future for both nations will depend on significant investments in energy research and development. This technology will provide economic opportunities for the countries that
create, develop and build it and, with our long history of working together, the United States and Canada have the potential to lead the world in this area, much as our collaboration in the last century put us at the forefront of many key industrial sectors.
Canada and the United States will develop a Clean Energy RD&D Collaboration Framework, and work together on a technology “roadmap” that will identify and describe the technology and associated R&D pathways that would allow Canada and the United States to meet our respective goals for reducing greenhouse gases by 2050. Together, the Framework and Roadmap will:
 Foster the many factors that lead to technological innovation, including: increased levels of collaborative research, development, and demonstration among laboratories, industry and academia; significant sharing of information and frequent exchanges of personnel; creation of virtual labs; establishment of formal linkages between institutions and projects; and increased shared-use of unique facilities and scientific infrastructure;
 Explore scenarios for achieving our respective targets for greenhouse gas reduction, and identify near-term steps that could be taken to position our RD&D portfolios to deliver the required transformational technologies in time; and
 Help create a single North American market for clean energy technologies, achieved where possible through compatible codes, standards and incentives.
We have found there is great potential for collaboration on low-carbon technologies under the Clean Energy Dialogue. Canada and the United States will both benefit from a shared vision for a low-carbon North America. In the global race toward technologies that reduce our impact on the environment, we have an opportunity to improve our energy security, and to foster the innovation that will put North America at the forefront of the world’s economy for generations to come.
We commit to you to deliver on these initiatives and we will closely track their implementation over the coming months. As successful delivery of these initiatives will be key to making longer-term progress towards a clean energy economy, we also commit to provide regular updates to you on our progress, with our next report due in the spring of 2010.

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