In his long career as a U.S. senator, Joe Biden has sat through his share of lengthy speeches.
But sitting in the Oval Office on Tuesday, President Biden seemed a bit out of practice. During a meeting with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Biden at turns smirked, grimaced, fidgeted, and took notes as the Mexican president launched into remarks that went on for more than half an hour.
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Some 20 minutes into his remarks, López Obrador said he was getting ready to conclude. Biden broke into a big grin and laughed.
Speaking through an interpreter, the populist leader touched on everything from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s migrant policies, to the relative costs of American and Mexican gasoline, to lithium mining, and the need for broader, more predictable migration policies.
Biden made a point to tell his counterpart that he agreed with many of López Obrador’s broad points, that “our nations share close ties, family, and friendship.” Biden said policy differences between the two were often exaggerated by “overhyped headlines.”
Biden also touted cooperation between the two nations on targeting drugs — specifically fentanyl — as well as on tackling the root causes that lead people to migrate from Central and South America to Mexico and the United States
But López Obrador’s visit to the White House came immediately on the heels of the Mexican president’s boycott of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last month. López Obrador refused to attend the U.S.-hosted conference because the Biden administration did not invite authoritarian governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. That decision – and the White House’s frantic scramble to reverse it – cast a shadow over much of the summit.
And while not overtly hostile, some of López Obrador’s comments to Biden touched on politically embarrassing topics, like the high price of gasoline in the United States.
“While we’re waiting for prices or gasoline to go down in the United States,” López Obrador said at one point, “we have decided that it was necessary for us to allow Americans who live close to the border … to go and get their gasoline on the Mexican side at lower prices.”
López Obrador’s administration recently began subsidizing gasoline prices.
The Mexican president ended his remarks with a call for more, and more formalized, migration policies. “It is indispensable for us to regularize and give certainty to migrants that for years have lived and worked in a very honest manner,” he said.
“I know that your adversaries the conservatives are going to be screaming all over the place,” López Obrador added, deploying phrasing he often uses to describe critics of his administration. “Even to the heaven they’re going to be yelling.”
Indeed, Republicans have seized on high numbers of migrants trying to cross the U.S. border as they criticize Biden’s policies.
“We need to work closer together,” Biden said after López Obrador concluded. “The thrust of what you’re saying, I agree with.”
The two leaders continued meeting behind closed doors after their 45 minutes in front of reporters.
More diplomacy and meetings await Biden later this week: Late Tuesday, he leaves for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
NPR’s Carrie Kahn contributed to this report.