Obama pressed by neighbors on sensitive issues

President Obama met with Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Stephen Harper of Canada.
Henry Romero/Reuters
President Obama met with Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Stephen Harper of Canada.

TOLUCA, Mexico — They call it the “Three Amigos” summit meeting, and President Obama and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts played their parts Wednesday. They shared a lunch, joshed about the Olympics, promised enduring cooperation, and took a staged stroll through a botanical garden, complete with requisite smiles for the cameras.

But the show of trilateral friendship did little to mask a series of stress points that divided the leaders during their first three-way gathering in two years. Although they announced agreements to make it easier to travel among the three countries and to find ways of protecting the monarch butterfly, the divisive issues of trade, immigration, and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline were left largely unresolved.

The meeting came 20 years after the three largest nations of North America tied their economies together in a landmark trade pact. Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada vowed to further expand commercial flows and to broaden their ties to partners across the Pacific.


But they gave little hint as to how they would overcome the obstacles holding up a proposed trade agreement with the dozen nations involved in negotiations, much less the political hurdles in Washington where Obama’s own party refuses to give him the authority he seeks to seal the deal.

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Indeed, Obama arrived here in Peña Nieto’s hometown with little concrete to offer his host given the seemingly fading prospects not only for trade authority but for winning congressional approval of an immigration overhaul. Nor did Obama give Harper the commitment the prime minister wanted for construction of the Keystone pipeline to take Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

Until pressed by reporters at the end of the day, Obama passed lightly over those issues during the public portions of the gathering, reiterating that immigration legislation “remains one of my highest priorities” and pledging “to complete negotiations” on the proposed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with labor and environmental safeguards.

Obama conceded that some in his party oppose a new trade pact but pointed out that he managed to pass smaller ones involving countries such as Panama and South Korea despite that sentiment within his liberal base.

“We’ll get this passed if it’s a good agreement,” he said.


The “Three Amigos” summit meetings began under President George W. Bush as annual events, although they have been somewhat less regular under his successor. Obama, making his fifth trip to Mexico as president, said Wednesday the three-way get-togethers were useful because they were a “forcing method.”

Yet the joint statement drafted and released before the three leaders actually sat down together seemed a statement of status quo. It used the phrase “continue to” eight times. With so little new to agree on, Obama opted not to stay for dinner and planned to head back to Washington after just eight hours on the ground.

The “key deliverables,” to use the White House phrase for concrete agreements, included creating a North American Trusted Traveler Program, allowing prescreened individuals to travel more easily among the three countries.

The leaders also agreed to create a “working group” to study ways to protect the monarch butterfly, an issue that has generated great passion in Mexico.

The leaders also promised to work on ways to improve freight transportation.