President Obama will host Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Washington next week for an official state visit at a moment when the relationship between the two countries — and that of their leaders — is on the upswing.
Obama and Trudeau quickly struck up a close friendship shortly after Trudeau, the son of popular Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, took office in November following a sweeping win by Canada’s liberal party, an election with numerous parallels to the 2008 election that brought in Obama.
Both leaders took office as popular, young men with something to prove after frequent criticisms for their lack of experience. And they’ve found a lot to like in each other, a relationship that likely gives Obama a younger brother figure who he can help wade through politics.
And while any state visit has an agenda chock full of policy discussions — some more important than others for two countries that are each other’s top trading partners and share the longest border in the world — it’s also a significant step in their budding friendship.
The two first met in person in the Philippines on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November.
“The first call I made to him I said, ‘Justin, congratulations. You and your family look great. I know Canadians are incredibly inspired by your message of hope and change,’ ” Obama said.
“I just want to point out that I had no gray hair when I was in your shoes seven years ago. And so if you don't want to gray like me, you need to start dying it soon, because it gets too late,” joked the 54-year-old Obama, who extended his invitation that day for the state visit, the first for a Canadian prime minister in near two decades.
Trudeau later recalled to the New York Times that it was “very, very cool” to talk to Obama, and tried in vain to imitate Obama’s voice to the Times reporter, saying that the president instructed him to call him “Barack.”
The relationship between the two is making waves across North America and the world, eclipsed only by Trudeau’s looks and his optimism that rivals that of a younger Obama.
“He’s new, young, dynamic, good-looking, his hair and the son of the father,” said Raymond Chrétien the Canadian ambassador to the United States during the 1997 state visit of Jean Chrétien — the ambassador’s uncle — hosted by President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHas China already won? Budget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE.
Chrétien, now an attorney at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, recalled that Trudeau’s father didn’t always have the best relationship with the United States during his 16 years as prime minister at various points in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.But he was nonetheless very popular.
“I think President Obama sees in Trudeau an opportunity to show him the ropes and maybe avoid some of the risk that he confronted when he was at that stage,” said Donald Abelson, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario.
Trudeau’s visit comes at a when United States-Canada relations are at a high point. They were strained for years, largely as previous conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was angered by Obama’s refusal to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, hugely popular in Canada and important to its oil industry.
But he rejected that days into Trudeau’s tenure, and while Trudeau said he was “disappointed,” he added, “the Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and co-operation.”
By all accounts, he got that fresh start.
“I do think it prejudiced the relationship,” said Gordon Giffin, who was the United States ambassador to Canada from 1997 to 2001, and now is a partner at Dentons.
“When it was resolved, I think that lifted that cloud from the broader relationship. And the election in Canada provided a fresh start with a new government. I think we are in a new place,” he said.
“I think what this meeting, state visit and all the pomp and circumstance are going to achieve for President Obama is a clearing of the slate,” said Christopher Sands, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
It could also be a big help for Trudeau, still a new leader by all accounts.
“He’s out to prove himself, and there’s no bigger stage that Canadians pay attention to than Washington,” Sands said. “Having a successful visit, and looking glamorous, and fitting in with a president who’s still very popular in Canada, will be a big boost to him domestically.”
Like any state visit, Obama will host Trudeau for a dinner Thursday night, a lavish affair that will include celebrities, leaders, lawmakers and others with connections to Canada, and give fans a chance to gawk at the outfits of both leaders’ wives.
Obama will also host a welcome ceremony, and Trudeau is planning various meetings, including two events hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress.
One of the top agenda items will be climate change. The Globe and Mail reported that leaders in both countries were in the final negotiating stages toward a North American continental strategy on climate change.
It would follow the pledges both countries made in the Paris climate change agreement, along with goals Canada’s provinces and territories have set.
“President Obama has made the environment a legacy issue for himself, so they’re bound to discuss it,” said Chrétien.
Harper’s government was more bearish on climate, refusing repeatedly to make major goals, and pulling the country out of the Kyoto protocol.
Trade will also likely be a top item. The United States has an agreement not to charge the tariffs on Canada’s softwood lumber industry that it says it can, something very important to Canada, but the agreement will expire soon.
The leaders are likely to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama likes and is trying to convince Congress to ratify.
Trudeau’s government is expected to shop the TPP deal around the country and hold a robust debate in Parliament before making a decision on whether to support or oppose the sweeping deal.
They could also discuss U.S. dairy access to the Canadian market and efforts to help travelers and freight cross the border.
The fight against the Islamic State could prove to be a point of disagreement between Obama and Trudeau.
Trudeau told Obama during a phone call one day after his election victory that he would be following through on a campaign promise to withdraw Canadian jets from the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State.
“He understands the commitments I’ve made around ending the combat mission,” Trudeau said.
Canada has only six planes participating in the mission, but it was a symbolic blow to Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign, which has come under withering criticism from Republicans, and some Democrats, back home.
The White House did not mention Trudeau’s comments in its official readout of the conversation. But press secretary Josh Earnest said last November that Canada’s involvement in the coalition “enhanced the national security of countries around the world” and that the administration is “confident that that kind of relationship between the United States and Canada will continue under the leadership of President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Last month, Canada pledged to triple the number of special forces troops training Iraqi forces fighting ISIS.
Vicki Needham contributed to this story.