WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces two challenges when he hosts Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Wednesday: responding to an Arizona immigration law that deeply offends Mexico, and pulling off his second state dinner without the dramatic security breaches that marred last year's dinner for India's prime minister.
Calderon, who's cooperated strongly with the U.S. on extraditing drug-trafficking suspects, can expect red-carpet treatment during his two-day visit, which has a relatively light and predictable agenda.
Besides the official dinner and a private meeting with Obama, their fourth bilateral visit and 11th meeting overall, Calderon will participate in a joint news conference at the White House and speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He'll address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.
The U.S. and Mexico are expected to announce symbolic agreements related to border and drug policy, the economy and clean energy. Calderon is likely to leave without resolving other long-standing issues important to both countries, however, such as overhauling U.S. immigration law and reopening the U.S. border to long-haul trucks from Mexico.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama "just looks forward to having such a strong ally here at the White House to strengthen our bond."
Andrew Selee, the director of the Mexico Institute at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the visit registered as "ho-hum" in terms of urgency or intrigue, "precisely because the two governments are already working so closely on a number of issues." That's not a bad thing for Obama right now as he strives for new U.N. sanctions against Iran and deals with the BP oil spill.
Selee said immigration would represent "the least substantive issue" in Obama's bilateral talks with Calderon, but would be "the most explosive in terms of their public statements."
Calderon hopes to show Mexicans "that the Obama administration is paying attention to Mexico and that he has rebuilt the relationship with the United States," Selee said.
As Democrats look to turn out Hispanic voters in this year's congressional elections, Obama may highlight the accomplishments of Mexican-Americans and the ties between the countries.
The biggest political hot button is the new Arizona law that allows police to detain, question and verify individuals' citizenship or rights to be in the U.S.
Obama already has made it clear that he dislikes the law. He's asked the Justice Department to look into its legality and implications, and the administration may challenge its constitutionality in court.
The law offends not only Mexicans but also many U.S. Hispanics and civil rights advocates. At the same time, polls find that a majority of Americans support the law and say they'd favor it in their own states.
Mexico, meanwhile, is waiting for the Obama administration and Congress to deal with the trucking issue and make good on the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. That provision was delayed for more than a decade, then partially implemented, then cut off by Congress because of safety concerns that critics say are more about labor unions and protectionism.
Mexico retaliated in March 2009, imposing tariffs valued at more than $2.4 billion on about 90 U.S. industrial and agricultural products.
Obama's state dinner last November for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became a high-profile embarrassment after a Virginia couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, got in and shook the president's hand without being on the official guest list. White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers later resigned; the dinner for Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala, will be a test for the new social secretary, Julianna Smoot.
First lady Michelle Obama has invited the Mexican first lady to visit a Maryland elementary school that has many Central American and South American students and a sister relationship with a school in Mexico.
(Tim Johnson contributed to this report from Mexico City.)
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