On Mexico Trip, Obama Maintains Economic Focus

President Obama is in Costa Rica to discuss regional cooperation and security with regional leaders. This follows talks he had in Mexico with President Enrique Pena Nieto. During his two-day visit, Obama tried to steer the focus away from contentious issues like immigration and drug violence.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama is in Costa Rica today. He's talking with leaders of Central American nations about security and economic trade. Yesterday, the president wrapped up a two-day visit in Mexico, where he tried to steer the focus away from contentious issues like immigration and drug violence. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: During their quick visit, Presidents Obama and Pena Nieto stuck to their focus: the economy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When one of us prospers, both of us prosper.

KAHN: It was the same in Spanish.

PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Pena Nieto said when Mexico is doing well in its productive capacity, so does the United States. The two men stood side by side at a joint press conference in the grand hall of Mexico's National Palace on Thursday. Obama insisted now is not the time to get bogged down on contentious issues, like immigration and security, but to focus on the immense trade and economic potential between the two countries.

OBAMA: We are your largest customer buying the vast majority of Mexican exports. Mexico is the second largest market for U.S. exports.

KAHN: Trade now tops a billion dollars a day between Mexico and the U.S. And that topic definitely made for better headlines than the usual fare of drug war, death tolls or tensions over anti-narcotic strategies. Relations have been strained in recent days since Mexico announced it was imposing new restrictions on U.S. anti-drug agents in the country. Obama addressed the issue briefly, with a deft nod to Mexico's nationalistic pride.

OBAMA: We look forward to continuing our good cooperation in any way that the Mexican government deems appropriate.

KAHN: Despite a few accords signed dealing with energy, infrastructure and educational exchanges, the visit appeared to do more to help bolster both presidents' domestic agendas. For Pena Nieto, the timing couldn't have been better. He's facing intense opposition to proposed domestic reforms that threaten many rich and powerful Mexicans. Throughout the trip, Obama, who is quite popular here, showered on the praise.

OBAMA: What I have been impressed with is the president's boldness in his reform agenda. He is tackling big issues and that's what the times demand.

KAHN: Again, at a speech yesterday in the expansive courtyard of Mexico City's National Anthropology Museum.

OBAMA: And in my time with President Pena Nieto, I've come to see his deep commitment to Mexico and its future and we share the belief that as leaders, our guiding mission is to improve the lives of our people.

KAHN: For President Obama, he got to showcase a Mexican economy on the rise, one that will support its population and cut down on the need for its citizens to migrate north of the border. Repeating the scenario of a prosperous Mexico plays well for the president back home as the Senate debates immigration reform. And by focusing more on the positive aspects of the U.S.-Mexico relationship instead of the negative, Obama bolsters his popularity with Mexicans here and with their relatives in the U.S.

OBAMA: The relationship between our nations must be defined not by the threats that we face but by the prosperity and the opportunity we can create together.

KAHN: Despite the glowing reports of Mexico's rising commercial success, the economy has slowed of late, to about 1 percent in the first three months of the year. Income inequality also remains high with nearly half of the population living in poverty - earning less than $100 a month - a point that will be difficult to ignore as the two Presidents try to keep the bi-national focus on the economy beyond their short visit. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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