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Mexico’s embattled president looks for a fresh start in Washington

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Bruised and battered from a series of scandals, and amid cries of protest, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will arrive in Washington Tuesday to meet with President Obama and try to turn the page on a difficult year.

Slumping in the polls and facing a crisis of public confidence, Peña Nieto is hoping for an Obama bounce. “He’ll be playing as much to a domestic audience in Mexico as he will be playing to a White House audience,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

But few expect a major new initiative to be announced at the meeting.

“The Mexicans want to go home with something,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who has close ties to the Peña Nieto administration. “I hope that President Peña Nieto can go back with something that will be good for his country and our country.”

John Bailey, a U.S.-Mexico public security expert at Georgetown University, expects no surprises during the visit. “I don’t see any big problems or major announcements of big ideas, at least public opinion isn’t prepared for anything,” he said. Bailey said he expects the White House to offer Peña Nieto full support on issues of security and human rights, at least publicly.

But Obama will be walking a fine line both at home and in Mexico, where U.S. security support can be viewed as yanqui meddling.

“The situation is delicate in Mexico,” Bailey said. “So I suspect the U.S. will avoid comment on specific issues and express general confidence and commitment to cooperate.”

Obama and Peña Nieto also plan to discuss economic issues, such as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and ways to “increase cooperation” in the energy sector, according to senior administration officials. Vice President Biden and Mexican Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray will also lead high-level trade talks between Mexican and U.S. officials.

U.S.-Cuba relations and deportation relief for undocumented immigrants will also be on the agenda, as well as a controversial $2.3 billion security agreement known as the Merida Initiative.

Mostly, Peña Nieto hopes his first presidential visit to Washington will serve as an opportunity to shift attention away from violence and corruption and back to his economic reforms.

It’ll be a tough task. Peña Nieto’s approval rating has fallen to 39 percent, the lowest of his presidency, according to a poll released last month by Reforma newspaper. Demonstrators upset about the government’s handling of citizen security plan to protest across the U.S. Tuesday.

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The Mexican leader began 2014 by pushing through a set of sweeping reforms, including opening the country’s energy sector to private investment, breaking up telecom and broadcast monopolies, and instituting merit-based pay for teachers.

But by the end of the year the president’s reforms had been eclipsed by a series of controversies that rattled the society’s confidence in their government. In September, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college disappeared. The government’s slow response to investigate triggered a massive wave of protests. Peña Nieto also faced scrutiny over allegations that a government contractor designed a $7 million home for the Mexican first lady.

Human Rights Watch is calling on Obama to pressure Peña Nieto on “abuses” committed by Mexican law enforcement authorities. “Peña Nieto’s administration must not minimize this profound crisis by pretending it doesn’t exist,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division.

An Obama administration official told reporters Monday that Peña Nieto’s government has taken clear steps to carry out the Ayotzinapa investigation, arresting the mayor implicated in the case, and that Mexico is “working to improve the performance of law enforcement.”

The Mexican president, meanwhile, wants to change the conversation altogether.

“For President Peña Nieto the objective is clear: try and get people back to talking about his reform agenda, and move the discussion about Mexico away from Ayotzinapa and allegations of graft and corruption,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza.