Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known colloquially as AMLO, is one of the world’s most popular leaders. Now nearing his fifth year in office since his landslide victory in 2018, he has maintained high approval ratings throughout his term. In a recent Morning Consult poll ranking the popularity of world leaders, AMLO at 61 percent placed second only to India’s Narendra Modi (who scored 77 percent).
Since the advent of multiparty democracy in Mexico during the 1990s, elections were disputed between three factions: the left, represented by the PRD and later AMLO’s Morena; the conservative PAN; and the once-hegemonic PRI, occupying the center. During this period, winners of presidential and gubernatorial elections rarely received more than 40 percent of the vote. That changed when AMLO was swept into office in 2018 with 55 percent of the vote and two-thirds control of the legislature. Five years later, Morena and its allies now control 21 of Mexico’s 32 governorships.
What explains the success of this apparently idiosyncratic leftist leader? International commentary on his presidency tends to accuse him of demagoguery and impugn the ignorance of those who vote for him. The truth is that AMLO is popular because he does popular things. Astonishing as this may sound to the technocrats of Washington and Mexico City, Mexicans have rewarded their president with steadfast support for the tangible gains they have made during his tenure.
To be sure, Mexico still faces serious challenges. The country is rife with poverty, cartel-related violence, and endemic corruption. Indeed, on the latter two points, AMLO receives poor marks from voters. But Mexicans still rate him highly across a range of other issues, including the economy, poverty reduction, worker’s rights, education and energy policy.
Left-of-center outlets such as The Guardian and Washington Post decry AMLO for his heresies on social issues and the environment, while largely omitting his administration’s spectacular record implementing left-wing policies that garner ballots. An admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, AMLO has boosted unions, benefits, and wages for workers, in addition to cracking down against predatory big businesses, both foreign and domestic.
In five years since taking office, the governing coalition has raised the minimum wage a total of 10 times to 207 pesos ($12) per day, up from 88 pesos, far outpacing inflation. Mexico went from having one of the lowest minimum wages in the Western Hemisphere to one well above the regional average. Compare this with the successive inaction of both Democratic and Republican presidents on wages north of the Rio Grande, and it is suddenly far less perplexing why AMLO is so beloved by the Mexican working class.
American progressives rightly note that the current, 14-year stretch since Congress last raised the minimum wage is the longest on record. Despite repeated promises by Democratic administrations, increasing the federal minimum wage has proved politically impossible, even as the current rate of $7.25 per hour has lost close to 40 percent of its purchasing power due to recent inflation. The consensus among “centrist” members of both political parties still holds that raising wages will translate into higher consumer prices or greater unemployment. Yet during AMLO’s tenure, Mexico has witnessed negligible variations in inflation (5 percent in 2018 and again in 2023) and joblessness (3.3 percent in 2018 versus 2.8 percent in 2023).
Defying the standard view of leftist rule as synonymous with irresponsible spending and tax increases, López Obrador has embraced what he calls “republican austerity,” pursuing forms of fiscal discipline that benefit the majority. Under AMLO’s predecessors, corporate tax evasion was rampant due to weak enforcement by Mexico’s tax agency, the Servicio de Administración Tributaria, or SAT. That changed when AMLO appointed the mathematician Raquel Buenrostro, a former colleague from his days as mayor of Mexico City, to head the SAT. Known as Mexico’s “Iron Lady,” Buenrostro brought forth spectacular results. In a move that might surprise libertarians, the leftist president vowed not to raise taxes, promising instead to make up revenues by other means.
In tandem, the penny-pinching AMLO and his tough-as-nails enforcer slashed public spending with across-the-board job and pay cuts for public officials. Similarly, a clampdown by Buenrostro on public procurement yielded $9 billion in the administration’s first year in office. In a move that would be unthinkable in the United States, the SAT chief proceeded to target businesses such as Walmart, Coca-Cola, IBM, and Carlos Slim’s Fresnillo for tax evasion, raising an estimated $10 billion in 2020 in what the Financial Times described as “fiscal terrorism.” By the time Buenrostro left the agency to become economy minister in 2022, tax collection from large firms was up 86 percent relative to the previous presidential term.
AMLO is also a long-standing champion of labor. Across three decades, successive governments of the PRI and PAN parties did their best to “modernize Mexico for the global economy,” as a 2013 (pre-AMLO) government statement put it. As with the minimum wage, this meant a gradual dismantling of workers’ rights. In contrast, AMLO’s ruling Morena party has advanced labor reforms allowing workers to form independent unions, as well as banning limitless subcontracting, which had previously allowed employers to forgo paying outsourced workers bonuses and other benefits. Here, President Biden, the “most pro-union president in history” could learn a thing or two from AMLO.
Yet López Obrador’s economic populism alone doesn’t fully account for his popularity. In deeply Catholic Mexico, the pious AMLO is relatable, because he appeals to and respects the culture of working-class Mexicans. He combines a worker-centric leftism with a popular social conservatism that prioritizes the family. It is partly for this reason that many progressives, north and south of the border, loathe him.
In the United States, the fetish for ideological purity compels absolute loyalty to every facet of a political platform. This, however, isn’t the case in Mexico. Particularly on social issues, both López Obrador and the opposition embrace ideological and class diversity within their coalitions. Like America’s big-tent parties of the earlier 20th century, AMLO’s coalition embraces pro-life Christians, rural peasants, organized labor, informal workers, and urban progressives.
Political necessity has compelled the PRI, PAN, and smaller leftist parties to band together in a broad front against Morena. In contrast to the governing coalition’s working-class base, the opposition’s support stems from urban professionals, business elites, environmentalists, and affluent Catholics and evangelicals. In a sign of the times, Mexico’s usually moribund opposition has seen new life ahead of next year’s presidential election thanks to the anti-AMLO, Xochítl Gálvez. Gálvez, a senator for the ostensibly conservative PAN, is a folksy, rags-to-riches, partially indigenous, socially liberal but “market-friendly” tech entrepreneur—and likely the opposition’s best shot at the presidency.
Then, too, AMLO’s domination has forced his detractors to embrace elements of the president’s agenda and reckon with past failings. Similarly, political necessity pushed Biden to embrace aspects of his predecessor’s agenda, specifically on trade and competition with China. But in the United States, it might well take the rise of a leader as broadly popular as AMLO to force both parties to abandon unpopular ideological commitments such as zombie Reaganism and masochistic identity politics.
Just as market fundamentalism remains a central dogma of all but a few on the American right, the American left finds itself tethered to a puritanical and out-of-touch social progressivism. Proposals like raising the minimum wage, negotiating prescription drug prices, and Medicare for All are routinely touted by Democrats as proof that they speak for ordinary Americans. Yet on cultural issues, they also alienate and malign many of the same populist voters needed to win over a majority of the public.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, aims to appeal to these same voters by denouncing progressive identitarianism while remaining largely aligned with the Cato Institute on economics. Amid soaring housing prices, forward-thinking Republicans might embrace popular reforms such as regulating or banning the sale of single-family homes to private equity. They could also promote pro-family policies, such as student-loan forgiveness for couples that get married and have children. But sadly, being a conservative in 2023 still means defending the “freedom” of Blackrock to bid ordinary Americans out of the housing market.
Democrats deserve some credit for the Biden administration’s embrace of industrial policy in the CHIPS and Inflation Reduction acts, as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s restrictions on non-compete agreements, policies which will redound to the benefit of American workers in the medium to long-term. It is ironically on this front where AMLO could learn something from his neighbors to the north.
The Mexican president, who seems to have little interest in manufacturing, is currently squandering an ongoing nearshoring bonanza, preferring instead to boost necessary but less productive industries like energy and mining. This points to one of his political weaknesses: He lacks a fruitful long-term vision for Mexican development. Biden, in contrast, has taken important if tentative actions to restore America’s industrial base, yet lacks either the wherewithal or courage to address the concerns of voters in the short-term. It should then surprise no one that voters know little of measures such as the CHIPS Act and disapprove of Biden’s leadership.
Difficult as it may be to believe, politics aren’t always zero-sum. There was a time when policymakers in both major US parties simultaneously embraced industrial policy and took legislative action to address bread-and-butter issues. On the latter, AMLO’s populism is more in the tradition of both FDR and Dwight Eisenhower than Biden’s or Trump’s. His success is a reminder that voters reward leaders who bring about material improvements to their lives. Perhaps pundits should ask themselves not why AMLO is so popular, but why voters in the world’s largest and most powerful democracies consistently rate their leaders as poor or mediocre.