US President Barack Obama savaged former US president George W. Bush’s policies in the Americas as negligent to friends, ineffective with adversaries and incapable of advancing US interests.
That was as a candidate. Now, as president, Obama has to keep his promise of revitalizing relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere — not just to create a better mood, but to achieve real results.
The work begins in earnest when Obama travels to Mexico City tomorrow for an overnight visit. The stop is a clear signal of support for Mexican President Felipe Calderon as the US and Mexico attempt to stem the deadly flow of drugs and weapons hurting both countries.
Obama will spend Friday through Sunday in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 Western Hemisphere nations. The leaders are eager for their own photo-opportunity moments with Obama, but they also want assurances that the US will fix its economy and help them recover.
The White House spoke on Monday of priority themes: rallying support for bottom-up economic reforms, particularly those that help the “poorest of the poor,” and working with other nations to expand renewable energy and reduce global warming.
Shaking the global recession is the dominant topic on the agenda.
“The perception coming up from the south [is] that in recent years the United States has turned its attention elsewhere, has neglected its relationships in this part of the world,” Jeffrey Davidow, Obama’s principal adviser for the summit, told reporters on Monday night.
“And I think this summit will give him the opportunity to meet with all the heads of state, listen to them, exchange views and come away with new ideas,” he said.
The first and only country Obama will visit on his way to the summit is Mexico. His administration so far has made a notable, public show of diplomacy toward the country.
As Mexico cracks down on organized crime, the violence among the drug cartels, their rivals and soldiers has led to thousands of deaths and crime that has spilled across the border into the US.
Obama has pledged more help, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the US’ “insatiable” demand for drugs has helped fuel the problem.
Other bilateral issues loom.
Mexico has slapped tariffs on nearly 90 US products in retaliation for a US decision to cancel a cross-border program that gave Mexican truckers access north of the border.
McDonough said the administration was working with Congress and Mexico on a resolution, but added: “I think it’s premature to anticipate a very specific announcement on that.”
On immigration reform, which collapsed in the US Congress during Bush’s administration, White House aides say Obama remains committed. Obama is expected to try to begin an immigration effort this year.