In almost every sense, López Obrador’s first full year in office was a disappointment. After years of mediocre but steady growth, Mexico’s economy has ground to a halt. Pemex, Mexico’s debt-ridden energy behemoth, could face a credit rating downgrade, further complicating the country’s outlook. López Obrador’s promised wage increase and the likely congressional ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement could jump-start the economy, but deep doubts persist.
Why then is López Obrador so popular? Why is there such dissonance between his image and his administration’s objective incompetence?
One possibility is the collapse of the opposition. López Obrador won the presidency with an unprecedented 53 percent of the vote. The stunning landslide left some parties in a daze and asphyxiated others into submission. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s former ruling party, has become cynically mimetic, mostly falling in line behind the president’s big-tent Morena party. The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has faded, while the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which ruled Mexico from 2000 to 2012, has struggled to find new and effective leadership. The disarray has given López Obrador almost completely free legislative reign. While he still does not formally control both houses of Congress, his popularity and political clout are, in effect, uncontested.
And yet, this hasn’t translated into successful governance. The secret to his popularity might then lie not in what Mexico’s president does but in what he says and how he says it. For a couple of hours every morning, López Obrador’s holds daily news conferences in Mexico City’s presidential palace. They have become a peculiar ritual. Like early homilies, they are broadcast in their entirety by at least one public television station and followed dutifully by most cable news channels. Many of the country’s top news sites live-stream them as well, making the president an omnipresent, if sometimes rambling, narrator in chief who frequently presents an alternative and often false version of events (according to fact-checker Verificado, most of what López Obrador says during these morning briefings is “either misleading or untrue”).
“This is stealth state television,” a U.S. colleague told me recently after witnessing one of the Mexican president’s daily performances. There is, indeed, an Orwellian method to the madness. Journalist Daniel Moreno, who runs the independent news site Animal Político, told me López Obrador’s news conferences “are propaganda in the most fundamental way.” He added: López Obrador “gets to speak directly to his audience, an audience that believes him and believes in him. This helps him maintain his popularity."
Political scientist Raúl Trejo Delarbre agrees. The news conferences “rarely have any journalistic significance” because they serve an entirely different purpose, Trejo told me. “The conferences are meant to accentuate the president’s public presence and turn him into the only relevant actor in the country’s political life.”
Newspaper El Financiero, which published the recent poll on López Obrador’s approval rating, also live-streams his morning news conferences. The editor, Enrique Quintana, told me López Obrador’s daily appearances have become “the centerpiece” of the government’s propaganda strategy. “They allow him to be part of the public agenda in a systematic and permanent way,” he said. Still, Quintana says, El Financiero has found enough demand among its readership to warrant posting the live-stream window every morning on its website. And most people like it. According to the paper’s poll, 54 percent of people approve of the daily exercise.
The question for Mexican news outlets is whether their audiences follow López Obrador’s daily briefings because they find the president appealing or vice versa. Like other charismatic Latin American leaders, López Obrador has always shown a savvy understanding of the power of setting the agenda. In 2000, as mayor of Mexico City, he also began every morning with press briefings much like the ones he holds today. They were occasionally informative but mostly entertaining — good for ratings.
So the media played along. López Obrador soon stole the spotlight from Vicente Fox, the PAN president who had extricated the PRI from power after 70-plus years, as he began his quest for the presidency. His ascendancy cannot be understood without the ubiquitous visibility media afforded him. Journalists might be falling into the same trap today.
“These news conferences offer the government’s official version of events and have become its only voice,” Moreno told me. “It’s up to journalists to go beyond that.”
In the meantime, López Obrador sits pretty, ready to spin as soon as the sun comes up.