OTTAWA, Canada – President Barack Obama offered the nation’s largest trading partner assurances Thursday 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, 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 candidates’ debate on the eve of the presidential primary in Ohio, Obama had argued for threatening to withdraw from NAFTA as a “hammer” to force concessions on labor and environmental standards.
But in Canada Thursday, 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,” 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.”
Obama also made his first public comments on the increase in U.S. troops he ordered for Afghanistan this week, leaving open the possibility that he would add more troops at the end of an ongoing strategic review.
The president said he did not want to “prejudge” the result of the review, which he said would be completed in two months. He had ordered an increase of 17,000 troops, short of a request for 30,000 made by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“I ordered the additional troops there because I felt it was necessary to stabilize the situation,” Obama said.
Canada has a contingent of 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to depart by 2011 under a deadline set by the Canadian Parliament.
Obama said he “certainly did not press the prime minister” for any commitment to extend the deadline.
“All I did was to compliment Canada on … the troops that are there,” the president said, noting that 108 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan.
In office for a month, Obama appeared to have completed his first official foreign visit smoothly, though he did lose his footing for a moment on an icy tarmac as he was walking back to Air Force One for departure.
The president is an enormously popular figure in Canada, and his visit generated a wave of enthusiasm.
As Obama’s motorcade passed through downtown, supporters held up signs, including one that read “Yes We CANada.”