As the candidates vying to replace him get increasingly aggressive, President Barack Obama is embarking on a sort of farewell tour to the world.
His visit this week to Vietnam and Japan – he arrived late Sunday Vietnam time – is one of at least seven treks abroad this year. It’s a schedule that will take him out of the country almost once a month from March through November, when voters will pick his replacement, and it is not unusual for presidents on their way out the door.
In March, he became the first U.S. president in more than 80 years to visit Cuba, and he went on to Argentina on the same trip.
In April, Air Force One was bound for Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Germany. In the U.K., his trip took on a wistful tone as he dined with the queen – his only British queen; her 12th U.S. president – toured the Globe Theatre and watched part of “Hamlet.” He also made headlines for his impromptu play date with 2-year-old Prince George - along with a business visit with the prime minister.
This week, it’s Vietnam – his first visit there – and Japan. After a summit meeting in Japan, he’ll become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima and the site of the world’s first atomic bombing.
All presidents in the modern era tend to get the itch to travel during the last year of their presidencies.
Bert Rockman, an expert in political leadership and professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University
In June, it’s Canada for the pomp and pageantry of a state visit, as well as meetings with the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico.
In July – as the Democratic and Republicans nominees for president prepare for their national conventions – Obama heads to Poland for a NATO summit.
August is blank. He and family usually vacation that month. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gave Obama a “standing invitation” to come to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in August, though it’s unlikely he would go now that the country is in political turmoil.
In September, as the general election campaign for president is in full force, he’ll go back to Asia, this time to China for a G-20 meeting and Laos for the East Asia Summit.
“He has a soft spot for Southeast Asia,” said Joshua Walker, a former State Department official who is now a fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Obama, who lived in Indonesia for several years as a child, will become the first sitting president ever to go to Southeast Asia twice in a year.
And in November, the president will go to Peru for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
A lot of this travel is driven by business.
Aides say Obama is focused this year on finishing items on his foreign policy agenda, including implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, ratification of a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal and support for a global response to climate change.
Some of it is driven by sentiment.
Obama frequently tells people that his favorite part of the job is having his own plane. “People sometimes ask me what the biggest perk of being president is,” he said last year. “No. 1 is the plane.” But he has lamented that “my lease is running out.”
Not only is the specially equipped 747 an easy way to fly, it’s also very comfortable. Much more so than the 707 used until midway through George H.W. Bush’s presidency. “It’s much easier to travel now then it was back then,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term.
And part of it is the race to add markers to the history books before time runs out next Jan. 20.
“The final year is focused on legacy,” said Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential trips. “International travel offers a chance to affirm his foreign policy legacy.”
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President Barack Obama will travel to Vietnam and Japan on May 21-28, his 10th trip to Asia. His first visit to Vietnam includes stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. He will participate in his final G-7 summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, before becoming the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Given the expected itinerary for the rest of his presidency, Obama will visit a total of 57 countries. Vietnam, Laos and Peru will add to the 54 he’s already visited, according to an analysis of records compiled by the White House.
That will leave him short of his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Each of them visited 74 countries over their two terms, according to an analysis of records compiled by the State Department.
The totals notwithstanding, all the second-term presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have shared a common feeling: looking for ways at home and abroad to keep a hand on the presidency as the nation looks beyond them. That can be executive actions taken without having to grapple one last time with Congress, and it can be going abroad.
“What you do in the last year is pull it all together . . . to put a bow on their presidencies,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and a retired professor of political science at Towson University.
“Presidents are going to take advantage of what resources they have out there.”
Note: This version updates with Obama arriving in Vietnam late Sunday local time.
Greg Linch contributed to this article.
Presidential foreign travel
Number of countries visited:
Barack Obama: 54 (through May 1)
George W. Bush: 74 (through 8 years)
Bill Clinton: 74 (through 8 years)
Number of days spent on foreign trips:
Barack Obama: 174
George W. Bush: 216
Bill Clinton: 234
Sources: State Department, White House