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Will U.S.-Mexico policy tensions change under López Obrador?

There are enormous expectations facing the new Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. What can he achieve on issues like border security, trade and corruption? Judy Woodruff gets reaction from former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, who resigned earlier this year about concerns about the Trump administration’s policies toward that country.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now perspective from former Ambassador Roberta Jacobson. She served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico until earlier this year, when she resigned over what she said were concerns about the Trump administration's policies toward the country. That ended a 30-year career at the State Department.

    Among many posts, she served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Obama administration, during which she led the diplomatic effort to open relations with Cuba.

    Ambassador Jacobson, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when it comes to AMLO, the new leader of Mexico, we just heard a lot of conversation about whether people think he can deliver on all of these promises.

    Is he someone you see as able to do what he says he is going to do?

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Well, I think that there are enormous expectations, as you say and as Nick said, but I think there are also a lot of people willing to give him a chance.

    The kinds of changes he is suggesting will take Congress, where it looks like is he going to have majorities. So that may enable him to do what he wants. But they also are the kinds of things that can't be done very quickly. And so that's the real question.

    Will Mexicans have enough patience and enough willingness to wait for some of the changes?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it does sound like there is a fair amount unknown about what we can expect.

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, his own policy pronouncements and those of his teams during the campaign were all over the map. And so there is some things that you can point to that are very reassuring, on economics, on other subjects of importance to the U.S. But there are others that were inflammatory and of concern. So which AMLO will govern?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about — let's talk first about border security.

    The president, President Trump, said they talked on the phone today for something like half-an-hour.

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do we think he can actually get done when it comes to border security that is different from what the current Mexico government is doing?

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Right. And that will be really interesting.

    I think, as we know, there are actually fewer Mexicans coming into the United States than leaving. So this is largely a problem of non-Mexican migrants, especially from Central America. And they go through or sometimes even stay in Mexico.

    So, currently, Mexico is helping with the return of some of those migrants. Will Lopez Obrador continue that? That wasn't a huge issue in the campaign, although what he did say didn't necessarily sound encouraging in terms of help on that score.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you mentioned — you said when it comes to the economy, you think that he may well be able to do what — to make some changes. We know that NAFTA remains a huge issue. The president is now saying, we will deal with that after the midterm elections this year.

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Right.

    I mean, what is interesting is, Mexico's transition and our own fall midterm elections are sort of concurrent, in that he — Lopez Obrador doesn't take office until December 1. That's after our midterms.

    So, that is the point at which formally he would sit down with the administration, although he has asked to be part, to have his team be part of any NAFTA negotiations that take place before he's inaugurated.

    But his own potential negotiator for NAFTA has said he thinks — that is, Lopez Obrador's — that he thinks that the Pena Nieto administration, the current Mexican administration, has done a pretty good job in the NAFTA negotiations. And the really tough part has been, frankly, some of the intransigent positions of the Trump administration.

    So it is hard to know whether that side will change or whether, if the leaders get along well at the top, maybe there is more flexibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that in a minute.

    But, before I do, just quickly, a question about corruption, a huge issue, a huge challenge for him in Mexico.

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is the real expectation there?

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    I think the expectations there are actually among the most difficult to satisfy.

    Mexico, these electors were largely looking at the corruption issue, the security issue and the economy to some extent, but corruption was top of mind. And there is a national anti-corruption plan in Mexico which is not fully implemented.

    So Lopez Obrador could move ahead on that plan aggressively, set up a special prosecutor, et cetera. The question is, will he? He didn't have any specific policy recommendations that came up during the campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, you mentioned President Trump, the relationship between the two men.

    As I said in the introduction, you did leave your post. And you were — you have spoken about it — because of problems you had with the administration policies toward Mexico.

    What are you looking for between the two?

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Well, I think, for starters — and one can only hope that today's phone call is the beginning of that — we need to see less vilification of Mexico and Mexicans by the president, frankly, and others in the administration.

    Those are the things that Mexicans were united about, that they really dislike those tweets or rallying cries about Mexicans and how to characterize them, and that they are never going to pay for the wall. Those are two things they were unified on.

    If we can have a more civil tone, a more respectful tone, and one that characters how much we both benefit from this relationship, then there is the possibility of progress.

    So I would be looking for the two of them to have probably some similarities and get along as people, because there are some similarities, populist, nationalist, but the policy issues will remain and be very tough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, so much to keep an eye on at this point.

    Roberta Jacobson, who formally represented the United States in Mexico, thank you very much.

  • Roberta Jacobson:

    Thank you, Judy.

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