Obama's No. 1 -- most foreign travel by first year president

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- With his visit to Denmark to pitch Chicago as the site for the 2016 summer Olympics, President Barack Obama has now visited more countries in his first year in office than any other president did.

His one-day trek last week to Denmark -- which failed to convince the International Olympic Committee to award the games to his hometown -- made it the 16th country Obama has visited since taking office on Jan. 20.

That pushed him into the top spot as the country's top globetrotting leader in his freshman year, passing the previous record holders: George H.W. Bush, who hit 15 countries in the year after he took office in 1989, and Gerald Ford, who also jetted off to 15 nations after taking office midway through 1974.

Those two were just ahead of Richard Nixon, who in 1969 became the first real globetrotting president when he went to a then-unheard of 14 countries in his first 12 months.

Obama will add more before his first year anniversary. He'll visit China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea next month.

This much international travel is a bit surprising for Obama, who ran largely on a domestic agenda, such as overhauling health care.

Many of his overseas trips have centered on international meetings, such as the G-20 economic summit in England or a NATO summit in France that focused on the kind of international partnerships that Obama stressed as a candidate. Others have included Obama's attempts to rebuild international support for the U.S., such as his speech to the Muslim world from Egypt, and a town hall meeting with college students in Turkey.

"They have to travel," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency and political scientist at Texas A&M University. "If you're going to have meetings of major countries, you have to be there. I don't see any other option. Of course, there is discretion about which countries you stop in on the way."

Presidential travel abroad is a relatively recent part of executive diplomacy, one that's accelerated in recent years, particularly as jet travel has grown easier, faster and more comfortable.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to travel outside the U.S. while in office, visiting Panama. John F. Kennedy was the first to get his own presidential jet, a Boeing 707. George H.W. Bush was the first to have use of the specially modified Boeing 747 widebody.

The costs of the trips -- borne by taxpayers -- are difficult to measure, but they're expensive. When he uses the familiar blue-and-white reconfigured 747 as Air Force One, it costs $100,219 an hour to operate, according to the Air Force. And that's just HIS plane.

There also are cargo planes, used to fly in armored limousines, helicopters, staff and other equipment, as well as the Secret Service. A single Air Force C-17 cargo jet, for example, costs $6,960 an hour, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A total of 77 other aircraft were used on one multi-country trip to Asia by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, according to the Air Force Times, including 14 C-17 Globemasters, 12 C-5 Galaxys, three C-141 Starlifters and two C-130 Hercules. ABC News at the time estimated the cost of that trip at $50 million.

The totals also don't count the costs of first lady Michelle Obama's trips when she flies abroad.

The White House wouldn't comment on costs.

Benefits also are hard to gauge.

By one measure, Obama has improved the U.S. brand. That could be due to his personal diplomacy, such as his speech from Cairo, Egypt, or some of it, especially in the Islamic world, could be due to the Bush administration's departure.

"The image of the United States has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama," the Pew Research Center said this summer after polling 24 countries. "In many countries, opinions of the United States now are about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade, before George W. Bush took office."

He's also improved some strained relations, notably with Russia. That, and especially Obama's decision to abandon plans for a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, likely helped bring Russia aboard in pressuring Iran to open a secret nuclear facility to international inspection.

Yet he's failed to bring anyone to the table for peace talks in the Middle East, European leaders have turned a cold shoulder to his quest for more troops in Afghanistan, and he still hasn't found foreign governments willing to take all the foreign terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Also, despite polls showing improved international sentiment toward the U.S., Obama's personal appeal not only didn't convince the Olympics panel to award the games to the U.S., but the U.S. bid also never made it past the first round of voting.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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