MEXICO CITY — With movie-star ease and glamour, President Enrique Peña Nieto has seemed to feel no pain as he goes about grasping all the third rails of Mexican politics.
Peña Nieto has pushed through the legislative thicket into a new landscape few thought possible: where American oil companies will soon be drilling in Mexican waters and where Carlos Slim’s grip on the telephone monopoly that made him the richest man in the world has slipped.
In all, 85 changes have occurred to the constitution during Peña Nieto’s 11 / 2 years in office. Higher taxes on junk food, confrontations with the teachers union and more political positions for women, plus the telecom and energy reforms. He has cobbled together an alliance of the three largest political parties. Foreign investment is high.
Yet his popularity is flagging. A poll released this week by the independent Consulta Mitofsky firm showed that his approval rating had fallen to 47 percent, its lowest point so far and down from 54 percent when he took office. Last week, the Pew Research Center found that his negative ratings have risen by nine points in the past year.
Souring the national mood has been an economy just trudging along — the government has forecast growth of 2.7 percent this year — and worry about what will happen when foreign firms have access to Mexican oil reserves for the first time since 1938. The familiar fears about violence and government corruption are also lowering spirits.
A key tenet of Peña Nieto’s presidential strategy has been to move the conversation away from the war on drug cartels and toward the economy, trade, education, health — even as the violence rages on in large parts of the country. Drug cartels continue to wield great power in western states, such as Michoacan and Jalisco, and along the U.S. border.
“You will listen to him say everything is wonderful and fantastic, but on the other hand we still have terrible problems with security,” said Guadalupe Loaeza, an author and columnist for the Reforma newspaper. “He’s much more popular outside than in Mexico because we don’t trust him. We don’t believe him.”
Peña Nieto delivered a statistics-strewn state of the union speech Tuesday, in which he noted that rates of homicides, robberies and other crimes have dropped during his administration.
“There are advances, but it’s clear that we should continue working,” he said. “My commitment is to continue making a Mexico where families live in an environment of peace and better security.”
In recent weeks, Peña Nieto has sought to pivot to a new phase of his presidency, the legislative push giving way to an era of implementation, when people will begin to feel the political changes in their daily lives. To spread the message, he has kicked off a public relations offensive, with interviews and
op-ed columns in foreign papers.
“All these reforms will create more jobs and increase the purchasing power of our people, strengthen the domestic market and enhance economic growth,” Peña Nieto wrote in the Financial Times.
The most recent quarter has shown more vivacity, but the economy has been sluggish — last year had the lowest growth rate, 1 percent, since 2009. Experts have noted that job creation is not keeping up with the number of young people entering the job market.
“He has to understand that the most important thing for Mexicans is to have money in their pockets, a better recovery,” said Gerson Hernández Mecalco, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “For Peña Nieto, the phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ fits very well.”
The changes to the oil industry will take years to unfold. Foreign companies will not start bidding for access to Mexican fields until next year. Peña Nieto has pledged to increase oil production by a half-million barrels per day by 2018. That same year, thanks to the telecom reform, 70 percent of Mexican households will have access to broadband Internet, Peña Nieto promised in his speech.
But his agenda has many critics and those who want to see faster improvement. In particular, the looming foreign involvement in the oil industry has galvanized his opponents: Left-leaning parties plan to organize a national referendum on the reforms before next year's midterm elections.
On the cosmetic level, critics find Peña Nieto distant and unknowable, as if following some script crafted in the shrouded back halls of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
“The feeling I always have is that to the PRI, the citizens don’t count. They don’t ask us, they don’t care very much about us,” Loaeza said. “The statistics show a lot of people don’t agree with these reforms, but he’s so sure about them.”