By: Martha Joynt Kumar
As President Obama comes to his final year in office, reporters and others are
interested in how he might spend his time in those months.(1) Looking at the patterns of his
predecessors, we can see the interest two-term presidents have had in travel, especially
when they experienced losses in the congressional elections occurring in their sixth year.
The following is an excerpt about presidential travel at the end of an administration from
my recently published book, Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama
Managed a Transfer of Power.(2)
With few initiatives to put forward and with attention drawn to his potential successors, we see the degree to which the president is gradually less of a presence in public life in terms of his public appearances, including his remarks, press conferences,and events where he responds to reporters’ queries. During the last six months of his presidency and sometimes even a year before his departure, a president is seen and heard less than was the case in his earlier years. He is less relevant to the news organizations, people in the Washington community, and his party, especially when the results of the last off-presidential year congressional elections before he leaves office bring in a wave of elected officials from the opposing party. Except where foreign and national security policy is concerned, he winds down the number of remarks he gives as well as the number of times he speaks with reporters. What he does ramp up, however, is presidential travel, especially if his party lost a large number of seats in one or both houses of Congress. Party Control in Final Off-Year Congressional Election for a Two-Term President*
* Harold W. Stanley and Richard G. Niemi, “Table 1-10 House and Senate Election Results, by Congress,1788-2004,” Vital Statistics on American Politics, 2013-2014, Sage / CQ Press, Washington, DC, 30-31. Note: After 2006 and into 2015, two Senate Independents caucused with the Democrats.
President Eisenhower faced such a loss in 1958 when Republicans lost fortyseven
seats in the House and thirteen in the Senate and so too did Lyndon Johnson when Democrats lost forty-seven House seats and four seats in the Senate. In the congressional elections in 1986 during the Reagan years, Republicans lost control of the Senate when they lost eight seats though they only lost five seats in the House. President Clinton was in a different position as Democrats neither lost nor gained Senate seats in the 1998 election and gained four in the House. For President George W. Bush, the pattern was a repeat of earlier eras in which the incumbent saw his party lose a substantial number of House seats, enough for a shift in control to the Democrats. Republicans lost thirty House seats, while the Democrats took control of the Senate with a gain of six seats, bringing the Democrats to a 49-49 split with two candidates who ran as independents, Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, promising to caucus with the Democrats.
With fewer initiatives to talk about, outgoing two-term presidents hold fewer press conferences in their last year than they did, on average, in their first seven years. With fewer policy initiatives to discuss, solo press conferences are less important, as they primarily serve the purpose for chief executives to demonstrate how conversant they are with important issues and persuading the public to back their initiatives, especially their domestic ones. President George W. Bush, for example, held fifty-two solo press conferences during his eight years, but only five of them were held in 2008-2009.(3) For President Clinton, the same drop off in solo press conferences was a pattern of his last year in 1999-2000. He held three of them in his last year in office with none after June 2000. President Reagan had forty-six solo press conferences with four in his last year. With foreign travel at the fore, many of their public appearances and press conferences here and abroad were ones with foreign leaders, except for Reagan, whose press conferences were all solo ones. Presidents facing significant congressional losses with two years left in their presidencies focus on foreign policy, including a great deal of foreign travel.
The template of a president as a world traveler in his final year starts with President Eisenhower, the first president to finish his second term in office with the knowledge that he was not permitted to run for a third term. During his eight years, President Eisenhower entered a foreign country thirty-seven times (some countries are counted multiple times; France, for instance, is counted four times).(4) When the visits are broken down by yet, twenty-eight of President Eisenhower’s thirty-six visits (77.8 %) took place between February 1959 and October 1960. Once the 1958 congressional elections results were in and Democrats captured control of the House and retained the Senate, President Eisenhower adopted a lower profile because he knew his legislative agenda would meet a hostile Congress.
The speeches he gave during this period reflected his trips abroad and his foreign
policy and national security goals for the United States. Lyndon Johnson took to foreign
travel as well visiting twenty-seven countries in his five and a quarter years, with 17 of
those (63.0 %) in his last year and a half. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush were
the biggest travelers of them all but still fit into the pattern of loading a large amount of
their foreign travel into their final months. President Clinton had 133 country visits with
fifty-one of them (38.3 %) in the period following the 1998 congressional elections.
President George W. Bush’s travels closely mirror those of President Clinton with 140
country visits and fifty-four (38.6 %) in the almost two years following the off-year
congressional election.5 Reagan represents a departure fro the pattern, with forty-nine
country visits in his eight-year presidency, but only eleven (22.5 %) occurred in his last
year and a half.
With our recent two-term presidents on the road and visiting with foreign leaders in Washington for much of their last two years in office, there is less of a presence for them among the American public than was the case earlier in their presidencies. The result is that an incoming president following a two-term president works in an environment where a president in his last two years in office has made fewer appointments than was the case in earlier years and put forward fewer policy new initiatives. One of the few areas of increased activity during this time period are his trips abroad.
1. See Edward-Isaac Dovere, “Obama’s World Tour: The president is planning to travel the globe to seal his foreign policy,” Politico, December 29, 2015 and Gardiner Harris, “Foreign-Policy Trips fill Obama’s schedule for Final Year,” New York Times, January 2, 2016.
2. Martha Joynt Kumar, Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of
Power (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 167-169.
3. Database developed by the author.
4. Office of the Historian, Department of State. 2014.“Travels of the President.” Accessed June 11, 2014. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/travels/president 5 Office of the Historian, Department of State. 2014.“Travels of the President.” Accessed June 11,2014. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/travels/president