Obama visits Mexico, but his attention is divided

April 29, 2014

TOLUCA, Mexico – “This is historic,” U.S. President Barack Obama pronounced aboard Air Force One on Wednesday.

Obama was not talking about his trip to the North American leaders summit in this industrial city. He was touting a new executive order speeding up exports for small businesses, part of his push to circumvent Congress on domestic priorities.

Upon landing in Toluca and being greeted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Obama still was not ready to focus on his meetings here.

“With the president’s indulgence, let me say one last thing, and that is about the situation in Ukraine, which obviously has captured the attention of the entire world,” Obama said, before warning the East European country to resist a violent crackdown on protesters.

No matter how hard the White House tried to build interest in the ninth “Three Amigos Summit” – which aides repeatedly pointed out included the United States’ top trading partners in Mexico and Canada – there was a sense that the news, and Obama’s attention, was elsewhere.

During the course of the day, Obama found time to call the prime minister of Turkey to talk about the “growing terrorist presence in Syria,” and he issued a statement praising Gap for raising its minimum wage to $10 an hour.

As Obama was speaking with Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to business leaders here, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer sent out the Gap statement on Twitter.

Obama spent just over eight hours in Mexico – one less than the nine-hour round-trip flight from Washington, and far less than the time he spent last weekend playing three rounds of golf in California.

The summit was started in 2005 by President George W. Bush to foster greater economic partnerships and cross-border initiatives. In a fact sheet touting “key deliverables,” the White House highlighted a “trusted traveler program” to allow people to move between the three countries more easily, and North American energy ministers’ meetings to promote better cooperation on energy reforms.

The leaders appeared eager to paper over any sharp differences. Harper has been a champion of the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline through the U.S. heartland, a project that the Obama administration has moved slowly on as it continues to review potential environmental and economic impacts. Though the two leaders may have discussed it in private, they joked about their countries’ Olympic hockey rivalry during the public remarks to the business leaders.

“My brother-in-law is Canadian, so you know I have to like Canadians,” Obama said to Harper, referring to his half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng’s husband. But the president added that he might not “feel as warm toward Canadians until the Olympic matches [are] over.”

Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that the Obama administration is touting as a way to promote growth between North America and fast-growing markets in Asia, got just one sentence in a 1,600-word joint statement from the leaders. Obama has faced resistance on trade issues from congressional Democrats, and his bid to create momentum here for the pact – of which Mexico and Canada are negotiating members – was boiled down to a line announcing that the countries would “seek to set new standards for global trade through the prompt conclusion of a high standard, ambitious, and comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership, as we promote further trade liberalization in the Asia-Pacific region.”

“I’m not here for as long as I would like,” Obama told the business leaders. Not even long enough “to sample Toluca’s famous chorizo,” he quipped.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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