Home » Travel » President Obama, the Ultimate Tourist, Ticks Down His Bucket List
Oct
03

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© Doug Mills/The New York Times Mr. Obama in 2013 at Petra in Jordan, viewing the 2,000-year-old ruins carved into sandstone cliffs.

WASHINGTON — Snorkeling in the crystal-blue Pacific waters off Midway Island. Check. Strolling through the enigmatic columns of Stonehenge. Check. Visiting the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica, the pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Check, check and check.

President Obama visited Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, in 2014.

© Doug Mills/The New York Times President Obama visited Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, in 2014.

It turns out that traveling the globe on Air Force One can do wonders for your tourism bucket list.

President Obama has spent most of his travel time the past eight years on official duties: countless fund-raisers, state visits to foreign capitals, pep rallies with American troops, policy announcements and never-ending summit meetings in hotel ballrooms the world over.

But maybe more than any of his predecessors, Mr. Obama has also seized the opportunity to become the ultimate tourist, methodically setting aside time to marvel at the world’s most spectacular sights, seemingly soaking up every experience. (Want proof? Watch the episode of “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” in which the president joins the host in eating some salmon already munched on by a bear.)

“It’s a Jeffersonian impulse. He’s intellectually curious,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, who compared Mr. Obama’s penchant for sightseeing to Thomas Jefferson’s travels through France from 1784 to 1789, though that was before Jefferson became president.

“He’s trying to do something that’s incredibly difficult,” Mr. Meacham said of Mr. Obama. “He’s trying to replenish his intellectual capital in a job that really just demands expenditure of that resource.”

Not all presidents are eager tourists. President George W. Bush was impatientwhen it came to seeing the sights. In 2002, Mr. Bush spent only 30 minutes at the Great Wall of China. It took him the same amount of time to visit theNational Archives of Canada, where he gazed at portraits of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. One White House aide told a reporter in 2004 that Mr. Bush liked a clean, tight schedule.

President Bill Clinton was by all accounts more willing to squeeze in tourist stops, even if it meant late-night visits before early-morning departures. On a visit to Madrid, Mr. Clinton toured the Prado, Spain’s national art museum, at 11 p.m.

President George Bush was well traveled while in office but less of a tourist than Mr. Obama, said Mr. Meacham, who recently finished a biography of the senior Mr. Bush. If he had some free time, “he was going to set up a game of wallyball at Camp David,” Mr. Meacham said. “He would order up spur-of-the-moment horseshoe tournaments.”

Aides of Mr. Obama’s say he has been relentless in urging them to schedule stops in places that give him a chance to do some sightseeing. In Rome to meet the new pope in 2014, Mr. Obama also took a private guided tour through the Colosseum. After four days of Mideast peace negotiations in 2013, the president played tourist at Petra in Jordan, viewing the 2,000-year-old ruins carved into sandstone cliffs.

And in 2014, at the end of a three-day trip to Estonia and a NATO summit meeting in Wales, Mr. Obama hopped in a motorcade for a short drive to the monoliths at Stonehenge, where he had a leisurely walk. He declared the site “spectacular” and “a special place” before telling reporters, “Knocked it off the bucket list!”

Mr. Obama’s travels — along with his frequent golf outings and summertime visits to Martha’s Vineyard — have generated some criticism, especially from Republicans who question the value of the trips and the cost to taxpayers.

Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, has used Freedom of Information requests and lawsuits to try to get information about the cost of the president’s travel. The group claims that Mr. Obama’s travel, official and personal, has cost taxpayers about $80 million.

Of course, the exact cost of the president’s sightseeing is unknowable because it is mixed in with the overall efforts required to protect and support the American leader no matter where on the globe he finds himself. The infrastructure of the modern presidency always accompanies the Oval Office occupant, whether he or she is on official duties or vacation.

The president’s aides point out that previous presidents have always traveled with the same security and administrative needs. And they insist that most of Mr. Obama’s personal tourism serves important diplomatic purposes. Eating in a noodle shop in Vietnam with Anthony Bourdain for his CNN program, they say, helped deliver the president’s hope for a deeper relationship between the people of the two nations. And the Obamas’ dinner date in a restaurant in Cuba helped cement the image of a new kind of relationship between Washington and Havana, two longtime adversaries.

“These moments allow the president to highlight issues he cares about by experiencing them firsthand,” said Liz Allen, the deputy White House communications director. “Seeing a melting glacier in Alaska or walking the trails of our national parks really drives home the impact of climate change and importance of conserving our lands and waters.”

“And when traveling overseas,” she added, “getting off the beaten path to visit a cultural landmark further deepens ties in that country.”

The demands of the presidency sometimes get in the way of Mr. Obama’s sightseeing. The president skipped a planned stop at the Taj Mahal after the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in early 2015 forced him to cut short a visit to India. Despite taking several trips to Southeast Asia, Mr. Obama has never been able to persuade his handlers to get him to Angkor Wat, a complex of magnificent temples in Cambodia.

“The president was quite disappointed to not have an opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal on his last visit to India,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said after the schedule change in India. “I wish I could promise — I think the president wishes I could promise — that he would have an opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal before the end of his presidency, but I’m not sure that will happen.”

And one of the biggest boxes on his tourism list is likely to remain unchecked during the remainder of his presidency: zipping across the frozen tundra of Antarctica, on a snowmobile that might be called Snow Force One. Top aides say he has been wanting to visit for years, but no trip there is on the schedule.

Still, there is no question that the presidency has given Mr. Obama extraordinary access to people, places and experiences that most others do not have.

“Jefferson had this incredible sense of curiosity. He wanted to be a kind of conveyor belt of culture,” Mr. Meacham said. “He saw tourism as, I suspect, the way the president does: widening the aperture of experience and learning as much as possible.”

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