Eight years ago, George W. Bush’s stay-at-home proclivities, seen by some as evidence of a lack of interest in the world beyond U.S. borders, became a troublesome issue as he ran for the White House.
As the president approaches his final year in office, his agenda is so heavily booked that he is already scheduled to touch down on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
His itinerary will take him to the heart of the disputed lands of the Middle East for the first time as president, to Asia twice within roughly four weeks, and to sub-Saharan Africa for the second time as president.
It adds up to at least 70,000 miles and a final year heavily focused on foreign policy, practiced amid an emerging generation of foreign leaders likely to be on the world stage long after Bush leaves office.
The extensive travel raises a key question: Can a lame-duck president achieve lasting foreign-policy goals during his dwindling months in office? The record of past presidents suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible.
However, for an unpopular president in his final year, with Congress in the hands of the other party, it may be the smartest move.
“It’s a lot easier and more comfortable to go to Moscow, Russia, than Moscow, Idaho,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was President Reagan’s final White House chief of staff. “It’s easier to do foreign affairs than to grapple with problems here at home when the presidential campaign has passed you by.”
The calendar tells the Bush story line for the coming year. On Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary election, Bush will be on his way to Jerusalem, his first stop on a nine-day, six-nation trip to the Middle East. In February, it’s Africa. In April, Romania for a NATO summit, with other European stops likely. July will be Japan for a Group of Eight summit. In August, he will be in Beijing, for the opening of the Olympics. And finally, after his successor is chosen in November, a meeting of Pacific nations in Peru.
Four of the trips are primarily for international conferences. But two trips are being drawn up to promote potentially far-reaching elements of his foreign policy agenda. The African trip is being built around his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS.
The Middle East trip, put on his calendar only a few weeks ago, carries the highest stakes.
“It has potential,” Duberstein said. “But he has to make things work. It’s a big riverboat gamble. He’s committing whatever prestige he has left.”
Taken with a NATO summit that could focus on the fate of the alliance’s undermanned mission in Afghanistan and the G-8 meeting’s potential focus on the contentious issue of global warming, the travel will allow Bush to try to cement “a lot of the building blocks of the president’s foreign policy,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.
But Simon Serfaty, an expert on Europe and international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the travel suggested a president “going in all directions . . . looking for one, two, three successful initiatives to allow him to be remembered as someone who looked at the world beyond Iraq.”
To apply a mile-to-benefit ratio, does Serfaty think the travel will be worth it?
“I would not bet much money on it,” he said.
Questions about whether Bush is actively trying to broaden his legacy have been put to him regularly since Republicans lost their congressional majority in the 2006 elections. Just as regularly, he says he is willing to let historians assess his presidency. But in his final year in office he is swinging for the fences.
The Middle East trip is perhaps the most ambitious of his presidency. Six weeks after the international meeting in Annapolis, Md., that Bush called to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the president is visiting Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to “encourage broader Israeli-Arab reconciliation” and nudge the Gulf states toward building democratic institutions, said Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen J. Hadley.
Serfaty equated Bush’s eighth-year efforts to those of several end-of-term presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson devoted himself unsuccessfully to ending the Vietnam War; Harry S. Truman had to hand over the Korean conflict to Dwight D. Eisenhower; and Bill Clinton made a failed last-ditch effort to achieve a Middle East peace.
“Do these things work? No,” Serfaty said. “Hardly any president has had a good foreign-policy last year.”
Still, the waning opportunities exert pressure on presidents. “There will be a sense throughout the year that the sand is running through the hourglass,” said John Podesta, the White House chief of staff during Clinton’s final two years in office.
In terms of domestic-policy breakthroughs, the Bush presidency ends when Congress begins its summer break, if not sooner, White House counselor Ed Gillespie acknowledged recently. Some Democrats say it is already over, but for dealing with an economic emergency. Bush will largely be limited to using his veto to thwart the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
From a political perspective, given the president’s low popularity, the Republican presidential nominee, almost certain to be decided within weeks, will probably want him to keep him at a distance.
“These are developments that push him out of the country, and in the eighth year, the places people still take him very seriously are overseas,” said Podesta, who guided Clinton’s staff in the midst of the campaign to succeed him.
As his job approval rating remains around 30% in the United States, Bush is finding friends among leaders elsewhere, among them Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
Regardless of his standing at home, an American president traveling overseas generally commands attention, even in his final months in office.
Kenneth Khachigian, a California lawyer who served as a senior aide to Reagan and also was on the White House staffs of Presidents Nixon and Ford, recalled the tumultuous welcome that an already-embattled Nixon received in Egypt in June 1974. Within two months, the Watergate scandal had forced him from the presidency.
“To the people who are meeting with him, he is the president of the United States,” said Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress in Washington. “When that big plane lands and the live TV goes on, people think, he’s the president of the United States. There’s something big and important and symbolic about presidential visits to these places.”