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The White House

Press Briefing 2/17/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                           February 17, 2009
Press Briefing
On the Trip of the President to Canada
Denis Mcdonough, Deputy National
Security Advisor for Strategic Communication
Via Teleconference
3:54 P.M. EST
MR. BURTON:  Hi, there.  Thank you all for joining the call.  I'm the Deputy Press Secretary.  Denis is going to give a statement here and then we will take as many questions as time will allow.  And if you have any follow-up I can be reached by email at
And now here is Denis McDonough.
MR. McDONOUGH:  Thanks a lot, Bill, and thanks everybody for joining this afternoon.
On Thursday morning President Obama will fly to Ottawa on his first foreign visit as President.  He will depart Andrews and arrive Ottawa International Airport, where he will be greeted by the Governor General of Canada and His Excellency Jean-Daniel Lafond.  As you all know, the Governor General Michaelle Jean is the Queen's representative in Canada.
After the welcome and meeting at the airport, the President will proceed to Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, where he'll meet with the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.  And after the meeting with the Prime Minister will proceed to a working lunch with the Prime Minister and several of his ministers.
The President will be joined in that lunch with members of his official delegation, which will include General Jim Jones, the President's National Security Advisor; Dr. Larry Summers, the Chairman of the National Economic Council; Carole Browner, who is the Energy and Climate Coordinator in the White House; John Brennan, who is the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism matters; and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg; as well as White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs.
After the lunch there will be a joint press availability in the Reading Room with the President and the Prime Minister.  And upon the conclusion of the press availability they will proceed back to the Ottawa International Airport where there will be a meeting with Opposition Party Leader Michael Ignatieff  And then we'll have a greeting with U.S. Embassy personnel and then return from Ottawa International to Andrews.
The President is very eager to make the trip to Canada.  He was both touched and honored that he was invited to Canada by Prime Minister Harper.  He looks very much forward to it.  He obviously recognizes that there is no larger trading partner or important economic partner for the United States than Canada.  And that will be one of the principle issues or the primary issue that they'll discuss on Thursday, namely the economy.
There will be a lot of discussion of the economic recovery plan that the President is signing today, and the synergies of that plan with the stimulus package that Prime Minister Harper has proposed in Canada, as obviously both of them have infrastructure investment in clean and renewable energy and green jobs and tax cuts for working families.
They'll also obviously be discussing, given the fact that Canada is the largest energy provider to the United States, our shared interest in energy and the environment, significant discussion of cooperation on clean energy technology.  And the President is hopeful that they can -- that he'll be able to build on the very productive conversation he had with President Calderón of Mexico last month here in Washington, before he was sworn in, wherein he and President Calderón talked about possibilities for carbon abatement, clean energy technology, and a partnership among the three North American countries on those issues.
And then of course the last set of issues they'll discuss relate to the global security challenges that we jointly face -- one, of course, being Afghanistan.  I think you may have all seen some reporting already on an interview the President gave earlier today on that matter.  He'll also obviously want to discuss upcoming summits, including the NATO summit next month and, of course, the Summit of the Americas shortly thereafter.
Canada continues to be a leader in the hemisphere, having dedicated a lot of resources to Haiti and throughout that region, having appointed an envoy for the region and having over the years been a real leader for democratization throughout the hemisphere.
So as I said, the President looks very much forward to the visit.  I think he has expressed his hope to Prime Minister Harper that this will be an opportunity for them to deepen their personal relationship, as well as their working relationship, between two vitally important friends and allies.
With that I'll stop my opening remarks and look forward to your questions.
Q    Hello, Denis and Bill.  One quick question, just to confirm, this is the first -- President Obama's first face-to-face meeting as President with another foreign leader, right?
MR. McDONOUGH:  That is --
MR. BURTON:  As President, but during the transition there was the meeting with Mexican President.
Q    Yes.  And can you please just speak a little bit more, elaborate on the import of Larry Summers and Carole Browner being a part of the delegation?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Well, you know, the President is obviously, as I said, eager to develop a close, personal working relationship with the Prime Minister.  But he also wanted to have some of his key White House staff join the delegation.  Obviously, the White House staff are closely coordinating with their agencies here in Washington.
But given the strong importance of the economic recovery plan and the investments that the President and Congress have called for in that plan, he thought it would be very important to have Larry along on the delegation to make sure that there is an opportunity to, as I said before, look at the synergies and the opportunities in these two packages, both Canadian package and the President's economic recovery plan.
Obviously trade, as I mentioned before, is a piece of that; it's a $1.5 billion trading relationship back and forth every day.  And of course as I mentioned with Dr. Browner that given the simple fact that Canada is our largest energy supplier, and given the fact that we share, obviously, a lot of environmental concerns and a lot of geography, and obviously given that we want to begin to prepare for the global efforts that will be undertaken over the course of this year, we wanted to make sure that we hit the ground running with a very important neighbor and ally.
Q    Thank you.
Q    Hey, Denis.  Hey, Bill.  I just had a few questions on trade.  Is President Obama going to do anything to begin renegotiating NAFTA in this meeting?  The Canadian Broadcasting interview suggests that that's been set a time -- aside for the time being and that President Obama says there are a lot of sensitivities right now because of the huge decline in world trade.  Has that goal been set aside for the time being, or is there actually going to be something on that?
And secondly, the Canadians have been, you know, taking some umbrage at the "Buy American" provisions in the stimulus package, even though they were tamped down slightly with the provision that they not violate international law or international agreements to the United States.  Is there anything that President Obama is going to be able to offer them to kind of tamp down their concerns on that?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Mike, thanks for the question and thanks for getting on the call; it's good to hear your voice.
I would just say a couple things.  I think just the most important point I think was the last one you made, namely that particularly at a moment of such global economic and financial tumult I think the President said today, and I'm sure you'll all see it tonight, that one of the lessons from history is to avoid any signals that suggest that we were -- that anybody is engaging in practices that may further result -- result in further decline of international trade.  I think the numbers that we've all seen already are significant enough.
In terms of what the President has to offer on trade, I think he wants to underscore the importance of what is already a very robust trading relationship, as I mentioned at one point $5 million in two-way trade every day.  It's the largest trading relationship in the world and he wants to look for ways to grow on that as it relates to new entrepreneurial and innovative technologies on energy and green technology.
And then as it relates to the Buy America provision, I think the President has been very clearly on the record on this, that the provision is obviously going to be implemented consistent with our international trade obligations, with our WTO obligations, and with our NAFTA obligations.  So I think my sense is that after hearing from him directly, there will be no need to take umbrage or to be uneasy, but rather to recognize that this is a real partner in making sure that we have our working families across this country getting back to work.  And that's the President's goal.
As it relates to NAFTA, I think you're very familiar with his views, that the labor and environmental standards that are side agreements in the NAFTA agreement are -- and many other agreements central to or a fundamental part of those trade agreements -- I think his view has been that he would like to work with our Canadian and Mexican friends to help them understand why his position makes good sense.  And I think this visit, like the discussion with President Calderón last month, will be an opportunity to do that.
MR. BURTON:  Does that answer your question?
Q    Just -- is he going to make any effort to press for that in this -- in this?  It sounds like you're saying, yes, he will try to at least ask the Canadian Prime Minister to go along with the changes in the NAFTA agreement he would seek?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Again, I just think that what I was saying, Mike, is that he, obviously, given the delicate state of the global economy, wants to make clear to Prime Minister Harper and to all of our trading partners that this is no time to -- for anybody to give the impression that somehow we are interested in less rather than more trade, and that's what -- that's the message that he'll underscore.
Q    Hey, guys.  I have a question, just first about Afghanistan.  What is the kind of -- Denis, you briefly mentioned Afghanistan as being on the agenda.  What is his message?  Will he even go down the road of asking them to reconsider pulling out of Afghanistan in a few years?
And then just second, just a follow-up on NAFTA.  By saying it's not the time to do anything that could hurt trade, are you saying that he is -- that's just not something he's going to even, you know, go down that road at all until that economy is back on track, so that's essentially on hold right now, that concept of him renegotiating a trade agreement?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Thanks, Carrie.  As it relates to Afghanistan, part of the message is going to be one of appreciation for the efforts that our Canadian allies have undertaken in Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is the largest recipient of Canadian foreign assistance.  Canada has had troops on the ground in Afghanistan alongside American forces since day one in this important mission.  And they have lost 108 Canadian soldiers in this effort.  And so Canada, like this country, has made a big sacrifice as it relates to stability and security in Afghanistan.  So the first message the President will convey is one of appreciation.
As it relates to going forward, the President will make clear that we are engaged in a comprehensive review, a comprehensive strategic review.  It's his belief that it's not -- there's not a military solution alone to Afghanistan, but that it will require all elements of our national power, all elements of our friends' and allies' national power to ensure that we have an opportunity to have stability and security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So I think he looks forward to having that discussion with the Prime Minister and with the Prime Minister's team.  And my sense is that it will be just the start of a discussion on these matters as we undertake this important strategic review over the next month and a half or so.
And as it relates to NAFTA, I think, again, the President's position is well known to you, Carrie.  I mean, you've been covering him now for some time.  But in terms of, you know, the opportunity this week is that I think the President will just underscore his belief that these are important matters, labor and environmental standards are important matters, and that he'll look forward to working both with Mexico and with Canada to try to underscore his view on these -- on these two important issues.
Q    Hi, gentlemen.  Thanks for arranging this call.  My question is regard to the Alberta oil sands.  What's the White House's position on the -- on the oil sands, particularly since these imports are -- they're only going to increase in the coming years as work on climate change goes on in both countries and internationally?
And then, second, what sorts of agreements or commitments to work, however small, do you want to get out of this meeting on a North American climate treaty or carbon cap that's been raised by Canadian Environmental Minister Jim Prentice in the recent days?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Yes, well, Alexander, thanks for the question.  A couple things as it relates to -- I think that the President would hope to be able to make some progress on cooperative energy technologies, building on some of the success that we've had on some experiment -- experimental or test-level capabilities on things like carbon capture and sequestration.  I'm sure you're aware that the economic recovery package includes about $3.5 billion for CCS, and it's the kind of innovative technology, I think, that we're all going to have to get our hands around if we're going to make the kind of progress that we all believe we need to on climate and to meet the President's goal that he laid out in the campaign and as reiterated as President-elect and then as President to see the kind of reductions in carbon output, carbon emissions, that are going to be necessary to stave off some of the worst impacts of climate change.
As it relates to tar -- as it relates to the oil sands, the President is obviously aware of the concerns that have been expressed about -- about that resource.  He obviously, as I mentioned at the beginning, considers Canada a very valuable partner as it relates to energy and energy security.  And that's why part of what they're going to be discussing on Thursday is the kind of clean energy technology like is called for in terms of the investments in the Canadian package, in the recovery package, in the President's economic recovery package, things like carbon capture and sequestration, that will allow us to access abundant resources, including coal in this country.  And that's the -- that's the kind of concrete steps that he'll want to take.
But he also wants to see if there's some opportunity to build on what he discussed with President Calderón -- namely opportunities among the three countries to look for carbon abatement options or carbon abatement targets.  President Calderón laid out a pretty ambitious vision of 50 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050.  And that's in, you know, an economy in Mexico that continues to be developing.
And so what the President believes is that with appropriate  science and cooperative technology among the three countries, we can find new and innovative opportunities to advance an innovative agenda that will allow not just the United States but our two neighbors to be real leaders on green energy, low carbon energy opportunities here as we push ahead on the important agenda of climate change and carbon emission reduction.
Q    Hi, gentleman, I'm new in Washington, and thanks for letting me in on this call.  I wanted to ask -- I've been to a number of briefings relating to this visit, and I guess not surprisingly there's an exceptional amount of interest from journalists around the world.  And given the fact that this is the President's first visit outside of the country; is that something you're mindful of?  And can you talk a little bit about whether you see the trip to Ottawa as a sort of platform beyond speaking just to Canadians?  Will you be -- will the President be sending any kind of message globally?
And additionally, there's a lot of consternation today, as of course there is in the U.S., about the state of the auto sector.  And I'm wondering if auto issues are going to be climbing higher on the agenda given the state of play today?
MR. McDONOUGH:  Well, on the autos, that question -- and welcome to Washington, by the way.
Q    Thank you.
MR. McDONOUGH:  As it relates to autos, obviously, the news today, but also I think the news that the President -- and the stories the President heard over the course of the last several months, if not years, as he traveled this country and heard from auto workers about the challenges that they're facing -- this has been a big priority issue for him, and will maintain -- will continue to be as such.
And obviously given the integrated nature of the North American auto industry, the President will be discussing this in Ottawa with Prime Minister Harper and looking for opportunities to ensure that we have a vibrant auto sector here.
As it relates to the message that the President wants to send the world with this trip, I mean, I think the fact of the matter is the President believes that every day is an opportunity for the United States to send a clear message to the world.
That's why I think he invested as much time as he did, and as much effort as he did in trying to ensure that we sent a clear signal to the rest of the world that the United States was leading on this economic recovery package, that we're trying to dramatically expand demand at a difficult time in the economy.  That's I think why he made very clear right out of the box that he wanted to play a leadership role as it relates to the Middle East; in his first day in the Oval Office, picking up the phone and engaging leaders in the Middle -- in Israel, among the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt, and Jordan, and in Saudi Arabia -- making clear that we wanted to be actively involved in efforts to consolidate the cease-fire there, and now building on a cease-fire to ensure that we have the kind of peace and security that everybody in that region so eagerly wants.
And so there's no question that the trip itself offers a new -- an opportunity to do just that.  And I think one of the things the President will be underscoring is similar to what Secretary Clinton is underscoring on her trip, which is that it's vitally important that America revitalize its alliances, look for opportunities to use those alliances to advance our shared goals and our shared interests -- be that on global challenges like Afghanistan, or democracy throughout the hemisphere, or concrete and aggressive efforts to stem global climate change.
I think that the President sees this opportunity to head up to Ottawa as a good opportunity to do just that.
MR. BURTON:  Well, thank you all for joining the call.  As I said at the beginning, this is Bill Burton.  And if you have any questions, you can feel free to shoot me an email at  And thanks again.
MR. McDONOUGH:  Thanks, everybody.
END                   4:19 P.M. EST