NEW ORLEANS – President Bush, stymied by Congress in his final push to broaden U.S. trade, is finding a bigger blast of support from north and south of the border.
The first day of a North American summit here showed off chummy relations, and markedly similar interests, among Bush and his counterparts from Mexico and Canada.
Bush was expected to expand on the those themes Tuesday by defending the economic benefits of trade and touting efforts to make traveling across borders less of a hassle.
To no surprise, the president's meetings with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were not poised to produce any bold agreements. The three leaders did not come to New Orleans confronting any looming, major decisions.
Instead, the leaders were expected to wind up with a statement of cooperation on important but bureaucratic areas, like disaster response and recalls of unsafe products.
The more dominant political theme of Bush's last North American summit is trade. Bush showed up here well aware of a rising anti-trade sentiment, whether on Capitol Hill, on the campaign trail of the Democrats who want his job, or among a disaffected workforce.
"All of us want to make sure we're treated fairly, and we can do that," Bush said after meeting with Harper and Calderon individually. "This summit comes at an opportune time to reaffirm the benefits of the trading arrangements between our three nations."
Bush wants Congress to ratify free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
For his part, Calderon offered a strong defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the three-country deal reached during the Clinton administration that removed barriers to trade and investment. Bush credited the agreement with creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, improving choices for consumers and slowing the flow of job-seeking migrants from Mexico to the United States.
It so happens that the summit closes on the same day as the pivotal Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, an event sure to grab more attention. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, both have threatened to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA as a means to get Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the terms.
In brief remarks to reporters, the Canadian president praised his relationship with Bush, which he called frank and productive. "The president has never promised me anything he couldn't deliver, and that's always appreciated," Harper said.
The backdrop for all this feel-good sentiment was New Orleans. Bush picked the site to showcase the city's rebound from the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
"I wanted to send a clear signal to the people of my country that New Orleans is open for business," Bush said at the reopening of the Mexican consulate, shuttered a few years before the hurricane struck as a cost-saving measure by Mexican officials.
The president had no plans to tour hurricane recovery efforts, as that was not the point of this trip. He spent his time in the Central Business District, out of sight from the residential areas that were hardest hit by the storm and are still in deep struggles.
Bush got a little New Orleans flavor though. He heard traditional jazz at a reception of business leaders, and dined with Harper and Calderon at a storied city restaurant.
Signs of the changing political times slipped into the events too.
Calderon looked ahead to the next American president in pushing for an overhaul of U.S. immigration law, something Bush wanted but could not accomplish. Calderon said he hoped whoever is elected will handle the matter with "respect and responsibility."
He also said he was ready to invite the next president to his country but quickly added that, of course, Bush is always a welcome visitor.
Harper had his own nostalgic tone as he talked of seeing Bush again.
"We've got a few more of these to go through before it's over," Harper said.