U.S. President Barack Obama greeted Nieto in a White House meeting to discuss ways Mexico and the United States can work together.
In contrast to his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, who steps down Saturday after a six-year term, Pena Nieto is focusing his foreign policy on trade rather than security.
The move seeks to eliminate a "source of conflict" on the U.S.-Mexico border, said Jorge Javier Romero, an academic at Mexico City's Metropolitan Autonomous University.
Romero, founder of two social democrat parties in the early 2000s, says Pena Nieto is cognizant of the fact that Mexico's foreign policy is dictated by how it handles relations with the United States. The incoming government's main goal is to move from "dependency to integration."
The regional circumstances in which Pena Nieto will start his term are radically different from what Calderon encountered six years ago. Violence in Mexico was on an upsurge in 2006 but it was Calderon, with military aid from the Bush administration, who involved Mexico's armed forces in the fight against the cartels.
Pena Nieto discussed security issues in his Oval Office visit but made sure to segue back to his major talking point. He said security cooperation would lead to "safe, modern borders that would permit better North American integration."
Unlike Pena Nieto, Obama didn't outline major policy shifts during the public portions of their meeting.
However, the Obama administration will give a major show of support by sending Vice President Joe Biden to attend the transfer of power ceremony in Mexico City. The vice president is traditionally the highest-ranking member of government that the United States sends to foreign inaugurations.
Biden's visit, in addition to categorizing Mexico as a priority, is a boon to Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials PRI. Calderon's inauguration six years ago was chaotic and tense among claims of electoral fraud by leftist politicians. A vice presidential visit indicates the administration trusts Pena Nieto's team will better manage their opposition.
And it is Pena Nieto's team that is responsible for the policy shift. Right-hand man Luis Videgaray and foreign affairs coordinator Emilio Lozoya are both Ivy League educated technocrats in charge of designing the new administration's foreign policy.
"Pena [Nieto] has shown that he can listen and be a good interpreter for his team" says Romero. "He recognizes his team has greater [academic] virtues than himself."
A clear contrast between Pena Nieto and his team is their position on social issues. While Pena Nieto is well known as a drug prohibitionist, Videgaray and others in his team, including potential Attorney General nominee Jesus Murillo Karam, are more flexible.
The newfound focus on pragmatic issues is also designed to aid Obama in achieving immigration reform.
"More than to demand, we want to know how we can support and back [reform]", said Pena Nieto.
But many of these attitudes and policies that seem innovative have clear origins in the PRI's byzantine traditions. In power for more than 70 years until elections in 2000, the party created a complex system of unwritten rules by which politicians could further, or destroy, their careers.
One such example is the reluctance of Pena Nieto to name his Cabinet appointments. Romero says incoming PRI presidents waited until the night before their inauguration because, "playing with uncertainty is the PRI game."
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