WASHINGTON – Full of free-trade promises overseas, President Bush faces stubborn obstacles to keeping those pledges. Washington, he lamented to his Latin American friends, is a place where "people cannot get rid of old habits."
If his trade agenda remains an elusive goal, Bush did appear to succeed — over four grueling days in Mexico, Peru and El Salvador — in assuring hemispheric allies that they have not been relegated to the back burner while he goes after Al Qaeda terrorists.
Each president to share a stage with Bush testified that he heard him commit to tackling problems beyond terrorism.
Peru's Alejandro Toledo saluted his partnership with Bush in fighting drugs.
Vicente Fox of Mexico celebrated that, on immigration, he and the president had "found an honest language which is also affectionate and respectful."
And Salvadoran President Francisco Flores gulped back emotion as he told reporters Sunday at the close of Bush's trip: "Never have I had such a high honor as President Bush calling me his friend."
The message that Bush's agenda runs deeper than destroying the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11 attacks especially resonated in his participation in the U.N. poverty summit in Monterey, Mexico, Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
"We demonstrated to all of the attendees that America is committed not only to the campaign against terrorism in a military sense, but the campaign against poverty, the campaign against illiteracy and ignorance and the other problems that we have in the world," Powell said while returning to Washington aboard Air Force One on Sunday.
After a series of early wakeup calls and late-night diplomatic dinners, Bush was taking it a little easy on Monday. Just a meeting with the prime minister of Denmark and a Greek Independence Day ceremony were on his public schedule.
The president came into office last year declaring the Western Hemisphere his top foreign policy priority. Promises of special new immigration rules for Mexicans and progress on free trade, however, fell by the wayside after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Even as he has systematically reclaimed his domestic agenda, Bush has been unable to muscle through the Senate the trade and immigration legislation he wants.
"Sometimes in Washington, D.C., people cannot get rid of old habits, which is petty politics ...," Bush told Flores. "But that's just what happens."
Democrats cited these failures over the weekend and said they prove that Bush's Latin American trip was nothing more than pandering to Latino voters at home.
In the weekly Democratic radio address Saturday, Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker emeritus of the California State Assembly, faulted Bush for giving only "vague assurances" on the immigration issues that many Latinos care about. "Our community knows the difference between rhetoric and results. They know the difference between pandering and producing," he said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denounced those charges and said it's the Democratic-controlled Senate that has blocked results on immigration and trade. The Republican majority in the House has already approved Bush's Andean trade preferences and legislation making it easier for illegal Mexican immigrants to get legal status.
But the enhanced negotiating authority Bush needs to make global trade deals squeaked through the House by only one vote, proving that Democrats aren't the sole obstacle his trade agenda confronts.
Flores, after waving goodbye to Air Force One, defended Bush and the lack of tangible results on the Central American free trade zone he's so far only talked about.
"The announcement and the process of the treaty are already producing a positive attitude and are generating prosperity in our region," Flores said.
Peru's Toledo also gave Bush a pass on not being able to secure a renewal of trade preferences for Andean nations trying to create jobs as an alternative to drug trafficking. "The separation of powers makes it impossible for presidents to control congresses — just like I don't control mine," Toledo said.
But, speaking to Fox News after Bush's departure, Toledo confessed to frustration. "I have to explain this to our people inside Peru and within the Andean region and we have been postponing and postponing," he said.