On his first official trip as president of the United States, Barack Obama is heading north to Canada to showcase the two countries' historic friendship and, as seems likely, employ this relationship as an example to the world.

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Waiting on Obama's visit. (Associated Press)

From this side of the 49th parallel, that opening could give the Harper government a chance to build a strong relationship with the new U.S. administration and perhaps devise a new bilateral agenda, business leaders, diplomats and observers here say.

"We've got very good friends now in the White House," said Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein.

As co-chairman of the 171-member Canada-U.S. inter-parliamentary group, Grafstein has built personal and professional relationships with U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Labour Secretary Hilda Solis.

"We've got some terrific cards to play," he added.

The date and agenda for Obama's visit are still to be ironed out, but the Conservative government is now saying it will be sooner rather than later. And waiting for the arrival has not stopped Canadians from wishful thinking.

A new beginning

According to a poll by Ekos Research, 47 per cent of Canadians believe the relationship between the two nations will be "fundamentally different" under the new U.S. administration compared to 41 per cent who think it will be business as usual.

In the same Ekos poll, the vast majority of Canadians ranked climate change and the environment as the top priority for the two countries, picking up on a theme the new president himself underscored in his inaugural address.

Fostering trade and managing the shared border were among the other top areas of concern.

The Ekos poll was a central part of a recent conference in Ottawa, organized by Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, to develop a blueprint for ways Canada can effectively engage the new U.S. administration.

But as Paul Frazer, a former Canadian diplomat who advises Canadian clients in Washington, recently told CBC Newsworld's Politics, "any wish list should be kept very short."

When they do meet face to face, Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper likely will discuss the global financial crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fraser said. But these broad themes, of course, can have a way of reaching into other areas.

It's the economy

The economy, the environment and energy will all be high on the agenda, says Thomas d'Aquino, the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He suggested Canada "leverage to maximum advantage" the fact that it is the largest foreign supplier of energy to the United States, a point that is not always appreciated south of the border. 

"The more that we can get Americans to understand that — given how important it is to their security — the better it is," said d'Aquino, whose business association will host a two-day meeting in Washington on March 23 for its 100 CEOs and representatives of the Obama administration.

Energy and trade — as well as Afghanistan — have the potential to become significant irritants between the two nations, some observers feel.

During the primaries, for example, Obama said he favoured free trade but wanted to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to include safeguards for the environment and labour rights.

When that issue first arose a year ago, Harper said it would be a bad idea to reopen NAFTA and said he was doubtful a new U.S. president would actually want to do so.

"There maybe some friction on the trade front that stems from some of the ideological differences that characterize the two different administrations," suggests Bruce Campbell, executive director at the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa.

But NAFTA renegotiations are unlikely to be at the top of Obama's agenda, said Campbell, who also believes the agreement has some serious flaws and needs to be re-balanced.

Dirty oil

During the election campaign, Obama also vowed to break America's addiction to "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil, which many believe includes the oil produced from the Alberta oil sands.

That oil produces about 20 per cent more carbon dioxide emissions (a key greenhouse gas) than that coming from conventional petroleum, according to a recent study by the influential RAND Corporation.

Obama is on record wanting to eliminate carbon-intensive oil and will likely view Canada as part of the problem because of the Alberta oil sands, says Christopher Sands, a Canada-U.S. relations expert at Washington-based Hudson Institute.

"If I were pitching this from Canada's point of view, I'd be talking about American jobs in refineries and in energy-intensive industries that are supported by Canada," he said.

That may happen, of course. But for the moment, the Conservative government seems to be pinning its hopes on a proposed binational deal it just unveiled that would sell oil to the U.S. and co-ordinate the countries' environmental plans, right down to tougher environmental rules, a common cap-and-trade system for dealing with carbon emissions, tougher fuel standards on autos and targets to use more clean energy on a variety of fronts.

Afghanistan

One perennial complaint in Washington is that Canada sometimes waffles on the big military issues of the day such as Iraq and missile defence and may do so again on Afghanistan, says Sands.

The Harper government has said clearly that it will end Canada's main combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011. And Sands says it would probably be better for Canada to keep that promise and help the U.S., which wants to build up its military troops in Afghanistan, in other ways by encouraging other NATO allies, such as Germany and the Netherlands, to join the mission.

"So there are things Canada can do, but I wouldn't suggest Canada argue it should stay longer now that it has made a commitment publicly that it's going to leave," Sands said.

But if Ottawa is hoping to gain real traction with the Obama White House, the big challenge, Sands says, is the fact that it has a seemingly unstable minority government.

Minority government "usually translates here as weak, unable to deliver things for U.S. administrations but still asking for a lot of stuff," Sands said.

If the Harper government gets caught up in domestic political concerns, the Obama administration will move on because it'll have so much on its foreign policy agenda.