By rolling out the red carpet for Mexican President Vicente Fox tomorrow - the symbolically important first state visit to the Bush White House - George W. Bush hopes to give Americans a lesson in neighborliness.
Like a parent nudging his children toward friendship with the neighborhood kids, Mr. Bush is telling Americans that closer relations with the still little-known country to the south will make things better all around: better for the US, better for Mexico - and better for the neighborhood.
Despite the smiles and Bush's bantering in basic Spanish with the tall, congenial Mr. Fox, it's not necessarily an easy sell. Many Americans still approach Mexico as some people might a neighbor, saying, "Drop by any time" - but then when the neighbor actually comes knocking, they say, "Now isn't the right time."
An unwillingness to open the border to Mexican trucks, as called for under NAFTA, is just one example. Administra-tion officials say the truck
impasse "infuriates" Bush, who sees it as blatant protectionism by the US.
But there are others. Congressional refusal to go along with President Clinton's 1995 bailout package for a financially stricken Mexico is emblematic of Washington's traditional willingness to slam the southern door. Bush has had to scale back initial plans for immigration liberalization under congressional pressure and a slumping economy, which has raised concerns about jobs.
Still, drawing on his experiences as Texas governor, Bush has elevated the relationship with Mexico. The state visit will mark the fifth meeting for the two presidents in less than a year. In a meeting with reporters Friday, Bush said, "You can't live in Texas without feeling Mexico."
Yet as Bush has settled into the presidency, his initial focus on Mexico has been distracted by competing demands. His top advisers don't share his keen interest in the region, observers say. Beyond that, a wide array of analysts doubt Bush's motives, seeing electoral interests and a need to meet big business's demand for cheap labor.
Still, as Bush takes up such sensitive issues as immigration, the US-Mexico border, and trade - possibly announcing a "set of principles" for a guest-worker program that would begin legalizing some of the millions of illegal Mexican workers in the country - he will remind Americans why good neighbors makes good sense.
"It's important to ... understand we live in an international neighborhood, and Mexico is our neighbor," Bush told a crowd in San Antonio last week. It's "family values" that prompt Mexicans to cross the Rio Bravo to find work in the US, Bush said. "People are coming to work to provide food for their families. And that's why we want Mexico to succeed. It's in our national interest."
On another level, though, it's in Bush's political interest to emphasize rhetoric that plays well with the large and fast-growing US Hispanic community. "The overarching goal" behind Bush's warm words for Mexico "is to get Bush reelected in 2004 - as well as for Republicans to do as well as possible in 2002," says George Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Bush's repeated use of terms like "family values," the "work ethic," "international neighborliness," and his openness to immigration liberalization can be seen two ways, says Jon Amastae, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of El Paso in Texas. "You can see it as his effort to educate the rest of the country about what Texas learned even before him - how much we are becoming dependent on Mexico and the importance of trade for our economies - or you can see it as part of the continual search for votes."
Even with Bush's positive words, most Americans remain ambivalent about their southern neighbors. A survey this summer by Public Strategies Inc. of Austin, Texas, found that only one-quarter believe conditions in Mexico are improving, while even less - 21 percent - thought the US should accept more Mexican workers. While 67 percent agreed that Mexico is vital to US interests, only 45 percent said the US benefits from free trade with Mexico.
Some observers, meanwhile, see little that is new about a Mexican president. They view Fox being as under pressure from a faltering economy and insufficient job creation, turning to a US president whose most powerful constituencies - in agriculture, construction, and services - want a steady flow of cheap labor.
"Fox finds himself in a pretty traditional place for a Mexican president," says Mr. Grayson, adding that US interests haven't changed much, either. "Guest-worker programs have always been designed to keep labor costs low and prevent unionization, and that's the goal here."
But administration officials close to the negotiations for a guest-worker program insist there is a big difference. One reason Bush finds Fox's proposals interesting, they say, is that Fox doesn't want to simply push Mexicans north. Instead, he wants a "circular" program that would target Mexicans from the country's impoverished south. They would go north, learning skills and earning money, then return to boost Mexico's development.
The guest-worker discussion exemplifies how much that has changed about the US-Mexico relationship has come from the Mexican side. Fox first caught the US off guard a year ago when, as president-elect, he came to the US and began talking about an "open border" within a decade. (He has since backed off that timetable.)
He then named as his foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, who has a keen knowledge of Mexico's northern neighbor and a determination to seize an opportunity to forge a more equal relationship with the US.
"Some Americans will have problems accepting the idea of Mexico as an equal party in discussions and actions, but Fox has made that a closer reality," says Mr. Amastae. "He's very good at defining the terms of the debate."