- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

MEXICO CITY President Vicente Fox delivers his first state-of-the-nation address to Congress today bedeviled by his own campaign promises of sweeping domestic change that have yet to materialize.
After nine months in office, the government that broke the long stranglehold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has reinvigorated the country's international role and opened a new era of cooperation with the United States.
But in most domestic-policy areas traditionally, the focus of the state-of-the-nation address Mr. Fox has failed to push through key parts of his agenda and tended to fall back on "do-nothing" options when obstacles arise.
Aided by Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, the conservative president has undertaken a diplomatic offensive to persuade the United States to discuss an amnesty deal for the millions of Mexicans who have crossed the border illegally in search of work. He travels to Washington Tuesday as part of his continuing diplomatic blitz.
But the issue remains delicate and concrete results are still some way off. So too are the domestic dividends they would produce.
The leading explanations for the president's slow start include a recalcitrant Congress, economic problems made worse by the U.S. downturn and exaggerated expectations generated by the fall of the 71-year-old PRI regime.
While Mr. Fox remains highly popular, many commentators say that public disillusionment is close at hand unless the pace of change picks up.
"There are signs of discontent in the Fox Company," said political analyst Denise Dresser, making fun of the former Coca-Cola executive's pledge to bring business efficiency into government.
"The polls suggest that the shareholders are beginning to have doubts about the execution of the presidential business plan," she said.
A poll by the Mexico City daily El Universal published yesterday found that, on a scale of one to 10, Mr. Fox scored an average approval rating after nine months in office of 6.9, down from 7.1 in May and 7.5 in March.
The most pressing concern remains economic stagnation something that wasn't even on the agenda when Mr. Fox took office in December at the end of a year that posted 6.9 percent growth.
Few directly blame the new president for the recent slowdown, and most accept as sensible this year's spending cuts designed to shore up fiscal stability while Mexico waits for the U.S. recovery.
But the economic woes do not help Mr. Fox's self-proclaimed image as a "man of action," nor his claim to mark a definitive break with the PRI regime that pursued similar economic policies during its final years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fox's promises of revamped social programs have been put on ice until the economy starts moving and there is a substantial increase in Mexico's paltry tax revenue.
A fiscal-reform package designed to top off public coffers has been blocked in Congress since April owing to infighting over a proposal to eliminate sales-tax exemptions on food and medicine.
Most commentators expect a compromise package to be approved before the year's end, but progress has been painfully slow.
"Whether through inexperience or negligence, the Fox government is giving the impression that it is evading responsibilities," said Mrs. Dresser, the analyst who works out of think tanks in San Diego and Mexico City.
In the political domain, the government's attempts to jump-start peace negotiations with the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas have also run up against congressional resistance.
Legislators from Mr. Fox's own National Action Party, proving they cannot be taken for granted, essentially sabotaged an indigenous-rights bill that might have paved the way for peace talks.
Again, Mr. Fox's good intentions were acknowledged, but his failure to bring his own party on board was widely noted.
"The biggest weakness of Vicente Fox and his team is the Congress," commentator Jorge Alcocer recently wrote in the daily Reforma. "Whether to govern with Congress or without it is his central dilemma, and one which he had better resolve soon."

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