WASHINGTON – President Bush is tending to his country's relationship with Canada and Mexico one last time, trumpeting trade over the "scare tactics" of economic isolation.
Bush joins Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Monday in New Orleans for his fourth and final North American Leaders' Summit.
This year's event has the intended twist of giving an economic and symbolic boost to the host city. Almost 32 months after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans is still recovering — with uneven success — from the most brutal natural disaster in U.S. history.
Most of Bush's time will be spent in a hotel and a historic former city hall in the Central Business District, far from the residential areas hit hardest by Katrina. His agenda includes a few events of local flavor, but they are secondary to diplomatic talks.
The gathering is also a send-off of sorts for Bush. Since this trilateral tradition began near his Texas ranch in 2005, he has watched the leadership of Canada and Mexico turn over; now he is the one on the way out, with just nine months left in office.
Despite its lofty name, the two-day summit lacks a defining issue and is not expected to yield any major announcements. It is more like a progress report on how the three countries are integrating — important for commerce and security, but not exactly enticing.
The United States and its two neighbors already have the largest free-trade zone in the world, and an economic relationship that has swelled to nearly $1 trillion a year.
To bolster that cooperation, the countries have made a concerted effort to harmonize standards on everything from food safety to baggage screening to energy efficiency. Bush and his counterparts championed this effort three years ago and keep refining it.
In New Orleans, the leaders will push anew to streamline the rules for all three countries. The areas of focus this time include fuel efficiency standards; crackdowns against counterfeit or pirated goods; long-term plans for repairing roads and bridges; responses to natural disasters and other emergencies near the borders; and coordination on recalls of unsafe products.
"The progress tends to be incremental, and therefore is not widely understood," said Peter DeShazo, a top State Department official for Western Hemisphere affairs during Bush's first term. "But in the big picture, there's a more coherent relationship."
The three leaders rarely get into the weedy details. But their presence sends a message that cooperation is vital, said DeShazo, who directs the Americas Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Blending the regulations of countries with different laws and legal systems is not just a bureaucratic and technical challenge. It is a political one.
Critics contend the "Security and Prosperity Partnership" — the framework for all this coordination among the countries — is conducted with little public input and oversight. It is enough to incite protests among citizens who fear it threatens national sovereignty.
That's true again this year. More than two dozen organizations have put together a coinciding "People's Summit" in New Orleans to raise their concerns.
When such criticism came up last year, Bush dismissed the idea that coordination among the countries is harmful. "Political scare tactics," he called it.
Yet Bush's pro-trade message is up against a tough audience at home. The deeply slumping economy has darkened the country's mood, particularly among workers who feel trade has cost them their jobs. Bush has found himself defending the North American Free Trade Agreement, which vastly broadened commerce with Canada and Mexico. His push for a free-trade deal with Colombia, a huge priority for the president, has stalled in Congress.
Inside the summit, Bush is sure to find a receptive crowd.
Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the three countries benefit by working together against competition from China and India. "North America needs to maintain its economic unity," said Donohue, who is taking part in the summit.
The event is to be anchored at Gallier Hall, a grand building of soaring white columns. It served as city hall for over a century and is now used mainly for ceremonial purposes.
Bush has no plans to tour damaged neighborhoods on this trip, his 16th to the Gulf Coast region since Katrina hit in August 2005.
But he will discuss recovery efforts and the challenges that remain at least twice: in comments to business executives Monday night, and at a Tuesday lunch with community leaders that will include his new Gulf Coast recovery chief, retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Doug O'Dell.
Bush's agenda starts Monday with the reopening of the Mexican consulate in New Orleans; the Mexican government had closed it in 2002 to save money.
Then come wide-ranging, separate meetings with Calderon and Harper.
The Calderon meeting is expected to cover the status of the so-called Merida Initiative, Bush's $500-million proposal to counter drug crime in Mexico. Bush's session with Harper is likely to cover troop deployments in Afghanistan, always a sensitive issue north of the border.
At night, the three leaders will have a dinner with an intentionally open agenda. It is designed to be a chance for the three to raise what's on their minds.
On Tuesday, Bush meets with corporate leaders, then with Calderon and Harper in a more formal joint session. They cap the summit with a news conference and a tree planting in Lafayette Square, which had many of its trees clipped away by Katrina's massive winds.
In this election year, Bush is also making time for politics.
On his way back to Washington, he is stopping in Baton Rouge to raise money for the U.S. Senate bid of Louisiana treasurer John Kennedy. The former Democrat is running as a Republican to try to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mary Landrieu of New Orleans.