When President Obama first spoke to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last October, just days after the young Liberal’s sweeping victory, he reminisced on the early days of his own presidency.
In Trudeau, he saw himself—albeit a younger, less gray version.
“I know Canadians are incredibly inspired by your message of hope and change,” Obama recalled telling Trudeau over the phone, during their first face-to-face meeting in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in the Philippines. “I just want to point out that I had no gray hair when I was in your shoes seven years ago. So if you don't want to have gray hair like me, you have to start dying it soon."
Trudeau cut in,”So young, and yet so cynical.”
It was a heartwarming moment in early days of their budding partnership, which will culminate with an official state visit at the White House on Thursday. After a day of meetings and a joint press conference at the White House, the Prime Minister and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau will attend an official State Dinner hosted by the President and First Lady.
The visit marks the first official state visit from a Canadian Prime Minister in nearly 20 years—Obama and Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, had a cordial relationship, but it was tested by the president's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the nuclear deal he negotiated with Iran. The two met frequently on the sidelines of conferences and Harper visited the White House, but the prime minister never experienced the pomp and circumstance of an official state visit.
“This is a situation where the president recognized that our relationship with Canada is one of the most important relationships between any two countries in the world,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “Given that there’s a new prime minister that was elected to lead the country it only made sense to ensure that he was warmly welcomed here in Washington on his first visit as Prime Minister of Canada.”
Obama administration officials previewed a hearty agenda ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, with topics ranging from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to climate change. The two leaders are also expected to discuss trade, including the Trans-Pacific deal world leaders etched out after years of negotiations.
The Obama administration contends that although Prime Minister Trudeau announced in early February that the country would be ceasing all airstrikes against ISIS operatives, his current strategy aligns with their goals. The Prime Minister tripled the number of ground troops he would make available to train Iraqi security forces and beefed up intelligence in the region.
On climate issues, officials called Trudeau a “tremendous” partner, from the country’s help on ironing out the Paris Climate Agreement to work both countries are doing to reduce methane emissions. The officials are also optimistic about their discussions on trade; though both countries are signatories on the TPP and both are in the process of a public comment period that leaves its future hanging in the balance.
Though the result of their meeting is yet to be seen, there’s much to be noted in the faith Obama administration officials have heading into the discussion.
“I think there is a developing special relationship between this president and the prime minister. Both young leaders with similar visions. Both have a progressive vision of governing. Both are very much committed to the appropriate use of multilateral tools. Both are committed to diversity,” National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mark Feierstein said Tuesday. “ I think we’re seeing that reflected, for example, on the issues of climate change and refugees and other issues. So this will be a good opportunity for the President and Prime Minister to expand that relationship and build on that.”
The budding relationship, however, comes at a peculiar time in American politics. Though the current president and prime minister share common interest, one of the two leaders is on his way out the door. And among the people standing in line to replace him are fierce critics of existing trade policies, immigration, and the acceptance of refugees from countries like Syria—who Canada has welcomed with open arms. In an interview with 60 Minutes this week, Trudeau offered a subtle criticism of Donald Trump, saying that “being open and respectful towards each other is a much more powerful a way to defuse hatred and anger than...big walls and oppressive policies." He also remarked that Canadians hope Americans to “pay attention to us from time to time, too." Perhaps, after this week’s visit, they will.