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Michelle Obama's defining overseas trip

/ Source: Politics Daily

First Lady Michelle Obama's plane landed in Mexico's capital city just after sunset on Tuesday, in a day that included a surprise stop in Haiti with Second Lady Jill Biden. It is a trip that will put on display Mrs. Obama's diplomatic chops.

Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden teamed up for a tour of Port-au-Prince, which was flattened along with much of the rest of the nation in the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. After a helicopter tour of the city, the two women met with Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife, Elizabeth. They saw schools, children's camps, UN workers, and U.S. military personnel helping a nation trying to bring itself back to life. Speaking to reporters in Haiti before flying to Mexico, Mrs. Obama summed up her experience: "This has been an emotional but important day for Jill and I."

The concern among relief specialists is that the enormous international attention showered on Haiti after the earthquake will diminish while giant needs still exist. Mrs. Obama said, "I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we're at the point where the relief efforts are underway but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit.

"And as we enter the rainy season and the hurricane season, you know, the issues are just going to become more compounded. And I think it was important for us to come and shed a light."

After spending about five hours in Haiti, Mrs. Obama flew to Mexico City, landing at the presidential hangar of the Benito Juarez International Airport. She stepped off the plane to Mexican and U.S. broadcast and print press, VIPs, 37 boys and girls who were Red Cross volunteers, and about 50 members of "Las Guias," sort of like the girl scouts. Mrs. Obama's long motorcade, consisting of more than 20 vehicles, emptied the highway and streets between the airport and her downtown hotel; almost no one was on the sidewalks to see the U.S. first lady come to town. But every major Mexican daily newspaper Web site was leading Tuesday night with the news of Mrs. Obama's arrival and with pictures of her hugging and greeting youths. The headline on La Cronica de Hoy splashed "Michelle Obama arrives to Mexico. "El Universal took note that Mrs. Obama was greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, and the Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan. The young people on the tarmac fit in the centerpiece theme of Mrs. Obama's mission here. She will debut on Wednesday what White House advisers called her "international agenda" of "youth engagement" in a major speech at a university.

If the phrase "youth engagement" sounds amorphous to you, it does to me. But much of Mrs. Obama's past serves as prologue. I take the "youth engagement" theme to be an extension of some of her work back in the early 1990s as the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an organization devoted to the development of youth leadership, especially young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. While Mrs. Obama has almost 100 percent name recognition in the U.S. -- whether for fashion, her White House garden, or work combating childhood obesity -- her image is less defined here.

In some sense, Mrs. Obama outside the U.S. is a blank canvas, except perhaps for her taste in clothes, waiting to be filled in. The Mexico and Haiti trips are only the first in a string of solo foreign travel planned in the months ahead, according to a White House adviser. Mexico and Haiti could serve as image-defining chapters in Mrs. Obama's story. Humberto Castro, 23, an architect at Mexico City-based Architectura 911, knew some of Mrs. Obama's story. "She graduated from an Ivy League law school and was a high-powered lawyer when she met her husband. My impression is that she's a well put together, articulate lady. I don't know what I expect from her but it doesn't seem like she's going to push a crazy, ambitious agenda forward."

Francisco Martinez, 36, a communications director at the Institute for the Protection of Savings Accounts, Mexico's equivalent to the FDIC, said, "She's coming at a time when the U.S. is re-evaluating its policy on Mexico. It's very significant that she's coming in the sense that there are U.S. government offices discouraging Americans from traveling to Mexico but she is coming here, which gives the contrary message. "The U.S. on Tuesday stepped up warnings about Mexican travel along the border because of the drug cartel violence. El Mundo, a Spanish daily newspaper, noted the paradox in its web headline: "U.S. Advises Against Travel to Mexico the Same Day First Lady Arrives."

The opening paragraph of the story: "The same day that First Lady Michelle Obama landed in Mexico, her government issued a new security alert extending the period in which it's discouraging citizens to visit the neighboring country. Violence is cited again for postponing the border crossing until May 12."

Asked about Mrs. Obama, Rebeca Perez, 58, a seamstress at a dress shop in the city's Atlixco neighborhood, said, "I think she is a woman who is prepared to help the president of the United States with the problems in that country and throughout the world. I think she's coming to meet with the Mexican First Lady to discuss projects they have in common, no?" Yes.

Mrs. Obama, 46, will spend much of her visit here -- she leaves Thursday morning -- with Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala, who is 42. Both women are lawyers with young children. While Mrs. Obama was tugged into politics by her ambitious husband, Mrs. Zavala comes from a well-known Mexican political family and is a former member of the Mexican Congress, a political figure in her own right.

Mrs. Obama's public schedule includes a museum visit, elementary school stops, her youth speech, reception with female leaders, and dinner with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Mrs. Zavala. They are events linked neither to the cross border drug problem nor immigration.Ana Maria Salazar, a political analyst based in Mexico City, said Mrs. Obama's visit is "a way for the White House to show their interest in Mexico by sending a very popular first lady to Mexico at a point where this government, the Mexican government, needs a lot of support. There are a lot of questions as to whether they are doing the right thing on the war on drugs." Said Salazar, "I think the brilliant part of this trip is that it lets both countries to address other very important issues that they could not address when the presidents meet or the cabinet meets."

With Emily Schmall contributing