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Canadians have a very high opinion of president-elect Barack Obama, shown, in contrast to their view of departing U.S. President George W. Bush, a poll suggests.

Canadians have a crush on Barack Obama leading up his inauguration Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States, but that sense of approval doesn't extend to policies that could affect their lives, according to a poll done for CBC News.

The EKOS poll found only 3.8 per cent of respondents have a negative view of the Democratic president-elect, compared to 81 per cent who approve of his performance as he prepares to take over the Oval Office. (Another 15 per cent said they didn't know or had no opinion on the matter.)

EKOS president Frank Graves said the approval-rating numbers for Obama among the 1,000 Canadians surveyed from Jan. 15 to 17 are outstandingly high, especially compared to the opinions people in this country have held of departing Republican President George W. Bush.

In past polls, Canadian disapproval ratings for the man who led his country into war in Iraq in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 have registered in the 70s and 80s, "and sometimes higher," Graves told CBC News.

The honeymoon level of support for Obama in Canada "doesn't mean carte blanche on the policy front, though," Graves added.

The EKOS survey suggests:

  • A high level of worry among Canadians over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Obama has mused about renegotiating in order to protect jobs in the U.S. About 62 per cent of those polled felt concerned or moderately concerned about Canada suffering from such a move.
  • A reluctance to support Canadian troops staying in Afghanistan past 2011 if Obama requested Canada's help past that date, with 55 per cent of respondents opposing such an extension, compared to 30 per cent supporting it.
  • A sense that Americans will be hurt in the future by Obama's intention to continue running deep deficits in order to fund hefty stimulus packages. About 71 per cent of those polled felt the cost would be a serious problem for Americans, with another 15 per cent saying it would be somewhat serious and nine per cent considering it not very serious.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked whether their own Conservative government running a deficit to stimulate a slowing economy would be a problem, the concern wasn't as great, though still substantial. About 53 per cent thought it would be a serious problem, with 19 per cent saying it would be somewhat serious and 24 per cent considering it not very serious.

A poll with a sample of this size provides a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Door open to working together again

Graves said the warmth expressed toward Obama is part of an overall resumption of cordial feelings toward the United States on the part of Canadians, in a trend that goes back about two years in various EKOS polls.

"After Sept. 11, we were all Americans for several months," Graves said, deepening the traditionally favourable outlook that Canadians had toward their neighbours to the south.

Then "deep and corrosive dissatisfaction" set in over the war in Iraq and other issues, before easing again thanks to softwood lumber breakthroughs, the reopening of borders shut to Canadian cattle imports due to mad cow disease and a lessening of the widely held antipathy towards Bush.

"Canadians are relatively much more receptive now to working with the Americans on areas of key concern than they have been in at least a decade," he said.

On one of those issues, climate change, Prime Minister Stephen Harper won points in the EKOS poll for proposing to pursue common solutions with the Americans under an Obama administration.

A total of 57 per cent of respondents approved of Harper's preference for a bilateral approach to climate change, with another 25 per cent expressing moderate approval, and only 15 per cent saying they had little support for the idea.

'Collective Obama envy' in Canada

On the down side, Harper and other Canadian politicians suffer by contrast when compared to the "charisma and style" of Obama, the poll shows.

"Canadians are experiencing collective Obama envy," Graves said.

In all, 47 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: "Watching the excitement surrounding the inauguration of Barack Obama and comparing it to our own political leadership, I feel disappointed with our options."

Another 22 per cent said they disagreed with that statement, 26 per cent said they neither agreed nor disagreed, and five per cent didn't know or wouldn't say.

The sense of envy was highest among the very age group that turned out most strongly for Obama in the U.S. presidential election in early November, but has been staying home in greater numbers with each successive federal election.

"Gen-Xers, under the age of 45, who have been absent from the Canadian scene, are much more likely to feel regret over our options," Graves said.