'I love this country,' says Obama as Canadians reciprocate

OTTAWA - You've got some fans, observed the prime minister.

OTTAWA - You've got some fans, observed the prime minister.

A bedraggled but joyful band of some 2,500 enthusiasts was camped out on Parliament Hill's snow-covered front lawn, waiting for a glimpse of Barack Obama. "Why don't we go out there?" said the arriving U.S. president.

"I just want to just take a quick wave and acknowledge them."

Obama's brief, smiling salute Thursday through a Plexiglas safety shield below the Peace Tower began to erase eight years of sometimes fractious Canadian-American relations.

Several hours later, when Obama waded, unscripted, into a local bakery to buy Maple Leaf-shaped cookies to take home to his daughters in Washington, the affair was all but consummated.

"I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally," Obama said near the conclusion of a lengthy 45-minute news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"And so I'm going to do everything that I can to make sure that our relationship is strengthened."

It was just a little over four years ago that a visiting George W. Bush dryly thanked those Canadians who'd waved to him "with all five fingers" during a stormy day of presidential protests in the capital.

The crowds that day were twice as big for Bush as Obama.

But the boarded-up business windows in Ottawa's downtown core and the snarling tenor of the home-made signs - "Is God Really an American?" - spoke of a rather different tone in November 2004 among those who'd gathered to see the then-leader of the free world.

One of the hundreds of riot police on hand for the Bush visit got doused in a bucket of red paint.

On Thursday, it was buckets of love splashing the capital.

"I saw his hand waving," squealed one smitten Obama fan after the president's brief nod to the Parliament Hill crowd.

"People who didn't know each other were hugging each other," confided another after Obama offered a fleeting wave to a group from his armoured limousine en route.

"Yes Oui Canada," said a bilingually inspired sign among the crowds.

The bonhomie was evident the moment Obama stepped off Air Force One.

The remarkable spectacle of a laughing African-American president of the United States being greeted on the red carpet by an exuberant Haitian-Canadian, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, was a study in post-racial dynamics.

The photo of their meeting, framed by a line of Mounties in dress uniform, graced the White House website all Thursday afternoon.

Obama's easy manner with his astounding global fame was repeatedly revealed.

"Has someone mentioned I'm a southpaw and it always looks funny on TV?" he said to break the ice during the traditionally stilted signing of the guest register in Parliament.

He paused curiously and then waved down to a gaggle of Canadian media encamped in the House of Commons foyer just below Harper's office.

He didn't skip a beat when "Ottawa" clearly started to come out of his mouth as "Iowa" to open the press conference - correcting his mistake before the final syllable.

It was, as expected, a virtuoso performance from a politician known for such apparently effortless feats, and Canada's shy Conservative prime minister had the good sense not to attempt to compete on Obama's terms.

Instead, Harper used the huge reflecting receiver of the presidential star to beam a few key messages back to Americans.

"There is no such thing as a threat to the national security of the United States which does not represent a direct threat to this country," Harper stated emphatically, an effort to staunch thickening security along the Canada-U.S. border.

The prime minister said he welcomed a new American emphasis on climate change and the environment, which he said will finally permit Canada to start moving ahead.

And he amplified global relief that there's an administration in Washington that wants to "continue world leadership by the United States of America - but in a way that is more collaborative."

Four years ago, George W. Bush blew off questions about Canada's low opinion of his presidency by boasting of his recent re-election.

"We just had a poll in our country when people decided that the foreign policy of the Bush administration ought to stay in place for four more years," he told reporters.

"It's a foreign policy that works with our neighbours."

On Thursday, both Harper and Obama suggested the neighbourhood just got friendlier.

"I expect that four years from now the U.S.-Canadian relationship will be even stronger than it is today," said the president.

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