Economy to take center stage for Obama's Mexico visit

Five months after Enrique Pena Nieto took office as Mexico's new president, President Obama on Thursday embarks on a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica with the intent of strengthening and expanding the United States' critical relationship with Latin America.

A number of issues will be on the table, including security and immigration -- as the U.S. hashes out immigration legislation that's sure to include an expansion of border security, cooperation from Latin America will be critical. The primary focus of the trip, however, will be the economy.

"We've spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border," Mr. Obama said in a news conference on Tuesday. "We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time."

As new trade agreements come together across the globe, Mr. Obama has the opportunity now to help Mexico raise its economic clout on the international stage -- a move that would in turn help the U.S., given the two nations' closely integrated economies. The U.S. also has the opportunity to expand the economic opportunities in Central America.

By pursuing trade agreements that include Latin America, the U.S. has the opportunity to "change the face of the relationship with the region to a first-tier issue," Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told "It's time that the region receive the attention it deserves, and the opportunity is there for the president to push this forward."

When Mr. Obama speaks to Pena Nieto in Mexico City -- in their first extensive meeting since Pena Nieto took office -- the new Mexican administration could entreat the U.S. to support its bid to get involved in the United States' free trade negotiations with Europe. The U.S. is also working with Mexico and Canada on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

"The rewards would be substantial for all our countries," Mr. Obama said with respect to the developing TPP in an interview with Americas Quarterly, "greater access for our exports to some of the world's fastest-growing economies which together represent a $1.4 trillion trading relationship."

Increasing trade in Mexico helps the U.S. -- for every manufactured product "made in "Mexico," according to Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, on average 38 percent was made by U.S. workers. And as Mexico makes reforms domestically, that interdependent economic relationship with the U.S. will increase.

"On the economic side, Pena Nieto has set a very ambitious domestic reform agenda for himself," O'Neil told He has passed labor reforms, education reforms, telecommunications reforms and is pursuing energy and tax reform.