With his nine-day venture out of the country this week to meet with leaders in the Middle East and Europe, presidential hopeful Barack Obama seems to be hinting that trips overseas can play a key role in improving the U.S image abroad. Historically, however, the role of travel in American presidents' lives has been fairly moderate — with one notable exception.
In his eight years in office, President Bill Clinton had more foreign visits than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon combined, travelling to 74 different countries and making a total of 133 presidential visits. In fact, according to a National Taxpayers Union study of presidential travel, Clinton spent 229 days abroad — more in 1998 alone than JFK had in his entire presidency.
But as the study suggests, the timing of Clinton's unprecedented number of visits abroad was perhaps not so much due to reaching out to allies overseas as to escaping enemies at home. Nixon's travels also peaked the year he was facing impeachment, and with the immense costliness of presidential trips, the benefits of engaging in diplomacy abroad could be outweighed by the millions of dollars and countless hours of preparation necessary to coordinate a visit.
Still, travel is destined to be an important part of our 44th president's job, as the U.S. will look to dispel the unflattering light in which it is currently viewed around the globe. Perhaps Clinton himself put it best in his 1995 remarks to a White House Conference on Travel and Tourism: "Travel leads to understanding. It increases the chances of peace, and therefore, it increases the chances of a better life for all."