MEXICO CITY - For generations, Mexico has been widely seen in the United States as a Third World neighbor, a source of cheap labor, illegal immigration and drugs.
But now, Mexico's growing economic might is transforming relations between the two countries, foreshadowing a new balance of power that was hinted at in President Obama's visit to the region Thursday and Friday.
Despite growing concerns among American officials that Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, might scale back coordinated efforts to stop the flow of drugs over the border, Obama struck a highly deferential tone in his appearances here, in marked contrast to a visit four years ago.
He said Thursday that it is "obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security" and on Friday used his remarks to emphasize the United States' responsibilities toward Mexico.
The new U.S. approach comes at a time of robust growth for the Mexican economy, which has fueled a middle-class expansion.
After Canada, Mexico is the second-biggest importer of American-made goods - buying more than Britain, Germany and France or China and Japan combined - and that fact is central to one of the key pillars of Obama's strategy for growing the beleaguered U.S. economy: exports.
"U.S. exports to Mexico grew $51 billion in the last two years, and that's more than anywhere else in the world," said Jodi Bond, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for the Americas. "Mexico is helping us with a manufacturing resurgence, and U.S. companies are growing because the Mexican middle class is growing."
Mexican pollster and political analyst Roy Campos said that while it's usually Mexico that has the heavier agenda in meetings with the United States, "this time it's different."
"It seems like Obama needs more from Mexico than the other way around," Campos said.
The United States remains enormously important to Mexico, and it still imports from its neighbor significantly more than it exports. But the trade gap is narrowing; it is now the smallest it's been since 2009, when Mexican growth was about to take off.
In his remarks Friday at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Obama sought to reassure Mexicans that he takes their country's economic strength and democratic progress seriously.
"Some Americans only see the Mexico depicted in sensational headlines of violence and border crossings. Some Mexicans may think America disrespects Mexico, that we seek to impose ourselves on Mexican sovereignty," Obama said to cheers. "I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside. It's time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today's Mexico."
"Some Americans only see the Mexico depicted in sensational headlines of violence and border crossings. Some Mexicans may think America disrespects Mexico, that we seek to impose ourselves on Mexican sovereignty. I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside. It's time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today's Mexico."