Canada

Stephen and Barack's tête-à-tête

Just call them Stephen and Barack — two middle-aged guys trying to raise their young families the best they can.

Just call them Stephen and Barack — two middle-aged guys trying to raise their young families the best they can.

In an exclusive interview with CBC's chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that he is on a first-name basis with U.S. President Barack Obama, adding that the two leaders have some similar experiences on which to build their relationship.

"We're both middle-aged guys from middle-class backgrounds with young families," Harper said after meeting with the new president on his first official foreign visit to Ottawa on Thursday.

"It's not just about what are your policies, but why you think the way you do, what are your hopes and aspirations for your own family and ultimately for your country."

Harper said he was struck by how relaxed Obama seemed during the 33-minute tête-à-tête in his private office on Parliament Hill.

"There's a kind of conversation you can have about issues in that context that you can only have with another leader; perspectives and concerns that only each other can really understand," he said.

"You're sitting down as a leader with another leader — you know a guy who the buck stops with him, we're in the middle of an economic crisis, we have tremendous security concerns the public doesn't fully understand."

Overwhelming challenges

Obama seemed "genuinely relaxed" during his visit to the nation's capital, Harper said.

"It's not to say he doesn't seem to have a grasp of the tremendous challenges that are in front of him," the prime minister said. "He seems to have good perspective on it all.  He seems to be able to look at it, able to understand the complexity and the difficulties of these challenges, but it doesn't seem to be in any way overwhelming him or stressing him."

Harper said Obama's relaxed attitude was what struck him most during the visit.

"I think of the challenges that are in front of me, and when I look at the ones that are in front of him, they are just overwhelming," he said. "That's something that's impressive at this point, but obviously we've both got a long way to go through this economic time."

Harper said the president was an "easy guy to like and an easy guy to get to know" and that the relationship will only grow now that they've had the chance to meet in person.

"That makes the other kinds of communication so much easier and deeper," he said.

'Big picture' discussions

The first meeting in Ottawa was just the "tip of the iceberg" in policy discussions between the Harper government and the new Obama administration, the prime minister said.

During the state visit, Harper and Obama outlined three main priorities of the bilateral relationship: working together to restore economic growth, a new initiative on environmental protection, and a commitment to stabilize Afghanistan.

Officials will be working on following up on those priorities and putting "meat on the bones" of the issues, said the prime minister.

"We started [our] focus on big-picture stuff," he said. "We have a privileged relationship with the U.S., and we are in a position to think big picture and provide some value-added to the relationship, so it's worth it for the Americans to spend some time with us."

Harper said Thursday's discussions were "all just part of the relationship-building process" and that he hopes to use them as the foundation of future talks with the United States at upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization and G20 meetings.

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