OTTAWA Declaring "I love this country" and waving to ecstatic Canadian crowds, U.S. President Barack Obama helped reignite on Thursday a close binational friendship that had waned during the administration of his predecessor George W. Bush.
Obama revived a tradition whereby new U.S. presidents make their first foreign trip to Canada, which is one of America's most important trading partners.
Bush made his initial visit to Mexico after winning the 2000 election and subsequently grew ever more unpopular among Canadians, in particular over his decision to invade Iraq.
The new U.S. leader, on the other hand, was treated like a rock star by the thousands of people who gathered in freezing temperatures to welcome him on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Unlike Bush, who rarely expressed much public enthusiasm for Canada, a close U.S. ally and its largest suppler of energy, Obama ladled on praise for its northern neighbor.
"I love this country. We could not have a better friend and ally," Obama told a closing news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I'm looking forward to this being the start of a continued extraordinary relationship between our two countries."
Obama has a Canadian brother-in-law and two of his key staff members are from Canada.
Polls show he is much more popular among Canadians than their own prime minister, quite possibly because of his relaxed style and easy humor.
"I want to also, by the way, thank some of the Canadians who came over the border to campaign for me during the election. It was much appreciated and I'm looking forward to coming back to Canada as soon as it warms up," he said to laughter.
Obama even managed to start the news conference with a stumble -- declaring that "it is a great pleasure to be here in Iow-, err, in Ottawa" -- but no one seemed to mind.
Harper -- a rather stiff and formal figure -- referred to Obama as "Mr. President" yet seemed more comfortable than he had been with Bush, who raised eyebrows by calling him "Steve" after the two men first met in 2006.
Critics accused Harper's Conservative government of taking its orders from Bush, giving him another reason to keep his distance from the previous White House occupant. There are no such problems with Obama.
"Canada and the United States are ... closer friends than any two nations on the face of the earth," Harper said.
As Obama left Parliament Hill on his way back to the airport, his armored limousine made an impromptu visit to Ottawa's central Byward Market area where he bought some cookies, pausing afterward to wave to cheering bystanders.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway)
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