"We reaffirmed the need to reject protectionism," Obama said in a press conference following his meeting with the two leaders in Guadalajara, Mexico. "We need to expand that trade, not restrict it."
Obama rejected any notion that the "Buy American" provision in the $787 billion stimulus package would threaten United States' relationship with Canada.
Distancing himself from the provision, Obama said that even though he thought it was unnecessary, his administration did not fight the issue because it needed to move quickly to get the legislation passed and not "get bogged down in debates about the provision."
"I do think it's important to keep it in perspective," he said, responding to a question by a Canadian reporter. "It does not endanger the billions of dollars of trade."
The president tried to separate his health care reform proposals from the single-payer, publicly funded Canadian system, saying that because the two countries have evolved differently and their systems are structured differently, the Canadian system would not work in the United States.
"I anticipate we'll do just fine, and when all is said on health care reform. The American people will be glad we acted to change an unsustainable system," he said. "I'm not acting based on short-term political calculations. I'm looking at what's best for the country for the long term."
He also defended his administration's language on Honduras, whose president was ousted in a military coup in June. He said critics who are faulting the United States for being too involved in Latin America are being hypocrites when they also criticize the country for not doing enough in the crisis in Honduras.
"You can't have it both ways," Obama said today.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, a supporter of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, is one of those critics. The fiery Chavez has historically been an outspoken critic of what is called U.S. meddling in Latin America, but in the case of Honduras, Chavez blamed Obama's administration for not doing enough.
Harper came to Obama's defense today on the topic.
"If I were an American, I would be really fed up with this kind of hypocrisy," Harper said.
On immigration, the U.S. president predicted there would be legislation by the end of the year, which would move forward in 2010.
"Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No. This is going to be difficult," Obama said. "There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable. And those are fights that I'd have to have if my poll numbers are at 70 or if my poll numbers are at 40. That's just the nature of the U.S. immigration debate."
Obama's two-day trip to Mexico was his second to the country as president. On the agenda were regular summit issues such as climate change and economic recovery -- including resolving a tariff dispute centered on the issue of Mexican trucking in the United States -- but also issues of life or death.
Swine Flu Preparedness
As fears of a wider swine flu outbreak grow in the international community, the leaders put the disease at the top of their roster.
Today, the three leaders pledged to enhance cooperation in combating the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus this fall.
"In anticipation of a possible fall wave of flu due to the 2009 H1N1 virus, we will look to enhance our exchange of information, ensure common understanding on the effectiveness of public health measures and share expertise," the three leaders said in a statement issued at the end of the summit.
White House homeland security czar John Brennan has warned that it is crucial to collaborate with Mexico and Canada on vaccine development and distribution, and ways to communicate with populations on how to best prevent the spread of the illness.
Obama, standing next to Calderon and Harper, on Monday vowed to continue the fight on cross-border drug cartels, a sentiment echoed by all three leaders.
Drug-related deaths in Mexico have risen since Calderon became president in December 2006, and passed 12,000 this month.
Despite some human rights groups' criticisms of the behavior of the Mexican army, Obama has stood firmly with Calderon as the cartels have increasingly branched out into the United States.
Today, he said he has confidence that under Calderon "human rights will be observed," but he did not answer the question of whether the State Department would certify that Mexico is protecting human rights.
Calderon said repeatedly that his government "has an absolute and categorical commitment with human rights."
Mexico Hits Back on Truck Ban With Tariffs
While Obama today pledged increased cooperation on cross-border trade with both Canada and Mexico, the issue of tariffs remains a serious point of contention.
In the 1994 NAFTA agreement, the United States agreed to allow Mexican trucks to haul their loads directly into the country to expedite delivery -- as long as U.S. safety standards were met.
Two years ago, the trucks began rolling across the border, and were given a good safety rating by the Department of Transportation.
However, members of Congress and the Teamsters Union complained the trucks were unsafe. So in spring, Congress inserted a provision in the budget bill to kill the trucking program.
In retaliation, Mexico slapped on tariffs reaching $2.4 billion, which are devastating businesses that sell products to Mexico. The tariffs range from 10 percent to 45 percent and affect dozens of U.S.-made products, including grapes, Christmas trees and paper products.
Paper maker Appleton Inc., of Wisconsin, laid off 10 percent of its 2,500 employees last year and slashed benefits just to keep operating.
"I guess I would say we were treading water, given the recession," said Kent Willitts, Appleton's vice president of marketing and strategy. "This is like someone handing you a brick and saying, 'Here, keep treading water.'
"We don't even participate in the trucking program and yet, one day we wake up and our products are penalized 10 percent," he said.
It has the remaining employees worried, too.
"The layoffs came very, very close to me," said Bill Saler, a steelworker for Appleton. "If we lose any more business, I will be the next to go."
Half a country away, California grape grower John Zaninovich said he feared he might lose more than $1 million this year.
"Already, we would have shipped probably in the neighborhood of 25,000 boxes down there [to Mexico]," Zaninovich said. "To this date, we have shipped zero."
When Obama was a senator, he voted against the Mexican trucking program. But now, as president, his position seems to have shifted, and Obama talked increasingly about doing away with protectionist policies in his remarks Monday.
Obama may have to figure out a way to uphold the U.S. obligation to NAFTA agreement while also upholding his earlier safety concerns. But his administration has not yet said how it intends to do that.