The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 30, 2001; Page A13

On the Air and the Road With Mexico's President

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

MEXICO CITY, May 29 -- In Mexico these days, it's all Fox, all the time. Six months into his term, President Vicente Fox has become the most visible human
being in Mexico, changing the formerly starched and gray office of the presidency into something more closely resembling "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

It is nearly impossible to turn on a television set or radio in Mexico and not find Fox. He travels constantly: next stops, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. He often gives
several speeches a day. His predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, disliked public attention and rarely held news conferences. But Fox has saturated the public consciousness
here the way President Bill Clinton used to in the United States.

Zedillo delivered a five-minute taped radio address every Saturday morning. Fox conducts a one-hour Saturday radio show, "Fox Live, Fox With You," during
which he serves as toastmaster for unscripted debates about whatever he and his callers feel like discussing.

Today, Fox gave his second live, nationally televised major speech in two weeks. The speech, before 1,000 people at the National Palace, was to unveil his national
development plan. It was filled with his trademark rhetoric of change and hope, promising that in time "Mexico will be a fully democratic nation with a high quality of
life . . . a dynamic nation with leadership on the world stage, with stable and competitive growth."

The speech was thin on policy details, but it was a half-hour of positive imagery beamed all over the nation on television and radio, into homes, restaurants, offices,
taxis and buses in the middle of the workday.

On May 16, Fox addressed Mexicans on national television for 50 minutes, in what he called the first of quarterly progress reports he intends to make. In the speech,
Fox touted the accomplishments of his young presidency and sought to blunt criticism that he had fallen short of his goals.

That speech seemed to have the intended impact: Criticism that had been snowballing during the previous two weeks seemed to soften somewhat. Political analysts
began describing Fox's slipping popularity as the inevitable and predictable end to a political honeymoon.

"All these ways he is finding to grab attention is new for Mexico," said Antonio Ocaranza, a spokesman for Zedillo who now runs a public relations firm that handles
image-making for several key politicians.

It is also critical for Fox's agenda. Since he took office, Fox's popularity ratings have dipped from soaring highs around the time of his inauguration to about 70
percent now -- numbers most politicians would love. His problems seem to be due largely to high public expectations exceeding the pace of his accomplishments.

Fox's most important legislative initiative so far, reforming Mexico's inefficient tax system, has been bogged down in partisan bickering in Congress. Even members of
Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, have acted like the opposition. Proposing tax increases, particularly a 15 percent levy on some foods and medicines, was
unpopular to begin with. Then failing to get his main legislative priority passed before Congress broke for its summer recess cost Fox some credibility.

But, Ocaranza said, without unconditional support from legislators or Mexico's entrenched bureaucracy, Fox's strategy remains focused on courting the public. "He
understands that his most important ally right now is public opinion," Ocaranza said.

Political analyst Lorenzo Meyer said previous presidents in Mexico's authoritarian system had labor unions, political organizations and other groups to carry their
message to the public. Fox does not have those avenues available, so "he has no alternative, he has to reach directly to the Mexican public."

"Besides," Meyer said, "I think he likes the idea of having a microphone in front of him. So it's a personal preference as well as a necessity."

                                               © 2001