Michelle Obama is ready for Mexico prime-time

By Darrell M. West
April 13, 2010

west - 5-18 - morigi- Darrell M. West is Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.  He is the author of the forthcoming Brookings Institution Press book, Brain Gain:  Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy. The opinions expressed are his own -

Michelle Obama is a hit at home and abroad but she will come under particular scrutiny this week as she embarks on her first solo trip outside the U.S., visiting Mexico. How she performs on this diplomatic mission will be closely watched because she is not just the president’s wife, she is the most prominent ambassador for her husband’s foreign policies.

Such trips are not a small undertaking, and they can carry more weight than might be expected.

When the First Lady travels abroad, foreigners take cues about policy substance and tonality from her.  They understand she is the last person the president sees at the end of many days.  Advice that she offers has a meaningful impact on substantive policy.

That Mrs. Obama is traveling to Mexico on her first solo outing is also significant. The country is vital to long-term American interests.  We share two thousand miles of border with our southern neighbor, and our economies are intimately intertwined.  Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner, and there are more than one million daily border crossings between the two nations.  Many of our undocumented immigrants come from Mexico.

But while Mexico is crucial to America’s fortunes, it is also wracked by violence.  Since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderone cracked down on drug cartels, more than 18,000 Mexicans have been killed.  That violence is seeping over into the United States.  Recently, an American rancher was murdered and before that, three people with ties to our country’s Ciudad Juarez consulate were executed.

Against this backdrop, Mrs. Obama will undoubtedly be surrounded by a wall of security, but not to the point where she is hidden from view. She is, after all, one of the most popular First Ladies in recent memory.

Now in her second year at the White House, Mrs. Obama, who has identified child obesity as her signature issue and demonstrated that vegetable gardens are an excellent way to save money while also eating well during a recession, has a sky-high favorability rating of 71 percent.  That is better than her husband’s approval and exceeds that of previous First Ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.

The current First Lady has also been an international hit.  There has been none of the controversy that afflicted her during the campaign such as when she said that “for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country”.  Ordinary folks appreciate her dedication to parenthood and articulate presentational style.

In making this trip, Mrs. Obama also joins other First Ladies in undertaking solo diplomatic missions.

In 2007, First Lady Laura Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan to promote breast cancer awareness.  In 1995, First Lady Hillary Clinton made news by attending a United Nations Conference on Women held in China and using the occasion to criticize China and call for greater gender equality.

These trips aren’t all about the weighty issues of policy, however. Foreign visits also provide opportunities for cultural and culinary enrichment.  When First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited Greece, she so loved the fish dishes that she asked for the recipe from the wife of the Greek Ambassador.  That item soon joined the White House menu as “broiled fish a la Gracque”.

Still, forays into foreign lands can be laced with peril.

The First Lady should be careful not to repeat a mistake made by Hillary Clinton during a 1999 visit to the Middle East.  When Palestinian Suha Arafat delivered a sharply-worded speech falsely accusing Israel of using poisonous gas on Palestinians and distributing chemical materials to ruin the water, Mrs. Clinton silently gave Mrs. Arafat a hug and a kiss at the end of the lecture.  The First Lady’s politeness was taken as substantive agreement with Arafat’s inflammatory charges.

The president’s wife also needs to respect local protocol.  The British press had a field day during a 2009 visit to Great Britain when Mrs. Obama touched Queen Elizabeth’s back, and thereby violated long-standing rules forbidding body contact.  For days thereafter, the First Lady was subjected to critical media attention questioning her personal judgment and lack of social awareness.

Above all else, First Ladies should heed the awkward mistake made by President Jimmy Carter during his 1979 visit to Mexico.  As an offended Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo looked on, Carter joked that he had been “afflicted with Montezuma’s revenge”.  This reference to the travel-related illness named after the Aztec emperor who was murdered by Spanish invaders so upset his Mexican hosts that it scuttled a planned immigration reform agreement.

When using humor on foreign trips, it always is better to make fun of oneself than local hosts.

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