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The day was full of symbolism as Justin Trudeau basked in the warm welcome at the White House. Expats, well-wishers and schoolchildren with Canadian flags ringed the south lawn. Mr. Trudeau and President Barack Obama, after inspecting the white-gloved honour guard, waded in to shake hands. Mr. Obama said Americans sometimes forget to celebrate ties with Canadians. Michelle Obama leaned over to chat animatedly with Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

The President pointed to shared politics: He mentioned that in both countries health care is now "a right for all"; he said both believe diversity is their nation's strength; and that gay marriage is now legal across both countries. At their joint press conference in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama noted Mr. Trudeau campaigned on hope and change, that he promises to emphasize inclusiveness and wants to lead on climate change.

"So from my perspective, what's not to like?" he said.

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In short, he embraced Mr. Trudeau as political brethren. He called upon U.S. officials to work with their Canadian counterparts. He pumped up Mr. Trudeau's image as an international celebrity and progressive political phenom. That's all impetus for work with the Obama administration.

But the substance of their announcements was more modest than the symbols. For the real state business, this moment in the sun came too early for the new Prime Minister, and a little too late for the outgoing President.

Mr. Trudeau didn't have a fully developed new agenda for U.S. relations, it seemed; Mr. Obama, anyway, has little time left to move on new agreements. They drew up a long, broad work list rather than making big new announcements.

The border measures were mostly incremental advances on things agreed when Stephen Harper was in power. Preclearance by U.S. border officials will be extended to two more Canadian airports and two rail stations. In a new wrinkle, Mr. Obama said there will be more info-sharing for no-fly lists; Mr. Trudeau said the Americans agreed to a working group to resolve cases of mistaken identity on those lists.

The biggest piece, on climate change, had some substance but not sweeping scope. Canada, for example, agreed to adopt U.S. targets to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas by 40 to 45 per cent by 2025 – a pledge made easier because Alberta and B.C. recently committed to the same targets. Aligning targets makes sense – but Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy couldn't guarantee U.S. regulations will be issued before the Obama administration leaves office.

That underlines a weakness. Mr. Obama's ability to push through measures is winding down. The President noted that not everything started by his administration will be killed by the next. But that still means much of it comes under the heading of maybe.

The limited agreements also suggested that Mr. Trudeau didn't seize the moment as a big event to put forward a major new Canadian request, or initiative. There wasn't a new Trudeau border plan, or indication of new proposals worked out with provinces to prevent a renewal of the softwood-lumber trade dispute; and few items were advanced enough for specifics. The upside is there will be another occasion: Mr. Obama will come to Canada in June for the North American Leaders' Summit and an address to Parliament. The bad news is his administration's clock will have ticked down further.

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But there was also no drama. The Keystone XL pipeline is off the table now. The return of the softwood-lumber dispute wasn't headed off, but Mr. Obama reassured it will be; though industry on both sides will be dissatisfied, he said, "it will be fine." It's on the work list.

The symbolism, the way Mr. Obama threw a metaphorical arm around Mr. Trudeau to embrace him as a Canadian political sibling, can give Ottawa hope the work list will get attention. But Mr. Trudeau came to the White House for the warm symbols of a renewed relationship with the U.S. and its President, and for the most part, that's what he left with.

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