These days, when President Obama’s policy agenda overlaps with an irresistible sightseeing opportunity, he grabs it.
KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — President Obama hiked alone up a gravel path toward Exit Glacier, gazing at a mass of flowing ice as it melted into the plain below.
Obama is in legacy-building mode here in Alaska, where he has come to talk about the rapidly unfolding effects of climate change and the urgent need to address it. He saw the consequences of global warming during his trek to the glacier, which has receded more than a mile during the past 200 years because of rising temperatures.
But he is also in bucket-list mode, increasingly determined to use his remaining 15 months in office to do and see spectacular things. These days, when Obama’s policy agenda overlaps with an irresistible sightseeing opportunity, he grabs it.
So it was Tuesday as the president donned hiking boots, black slacks and a slate-gray athletic jacket and boarded a helicopter from Anchorage to Seward to hike to the glacier. Amid a landscape of mountain peaks, glacial lakes, and moose and bears, Obama met up with television star Bear Grylls for a crash course in wilderness survival techniques.
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Later, he toured more glaciers by boat, cruising through the blue-green water of Resurrection Bay, where a sea otter paddled and a porpoise leapt. “When I’m not president, you might find me over there in that cabin,” he mused, pointing to a log cabin nestled in Thumb Cove.
Indulging second-term wanderlust is a well-worn tradition for presidents, who often strike out for far-flung destinations after they are freed from the constraints and set itineraries of politicking. With such travel, they look to shape the narratives by which they will be remembered.
“Trips in the second term are designed with an eye toward legacy-building,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a Brookings Institution fellow who has studied presidential travel. “If you can find a picturesque place that you’d like to visit and that fits nicely with a policy priority or announcement, it’s a good idea to make that happen while you can.”
Obama has been trying. Last year, on his way back from a NATO summit meeting in Wales, he had his pilot park Marine One at an air base, and he rode in his motorcade to Stonehenge, so he could stroll around the ancient site. “How cool is this?” he said at the time. “Knocked it off the bucket list.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to the president, said Obama “never forgave us” for not arranging for him to visit Angkor Wat when he traveled to Cambodia in 2012. When Obama’s staff members find an opportunity to “add something interesting” to the usual meetings and events of presidential travel, they try to do so, as they did with a 2013 visit to Petra in Jordan, Pfeiffer said.
The visits “serve a dual purpose,” he said, by satisfying the president’s interest and giving local residents a chance to “show off their most prized locales and sights.”
On the Alaska trip, Pfeiffer added, the hiking and fjord touring were “fun” for the president but also spoke “directly to the core message of the trip.” The photographs and videos of Obama’s sojourn, he said, would be “seen more through social media than any speech or interview that he might do.”
Alaska may seem an odd choice for a president who has never been seen as having a penchant for wilderness issues, as did Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, said Douglas Brinkley, a historian who has written about the history of conservation efforts in Alaska.
“Barack Obama is much more urban — he’s not an outdoorsman, a fisher, a hunter — but like a lot of second-term presidents, he has understood the beauty of the Antiquities Act when you have an intransigent Congress,” Brinkley said, noting that the president had used the law to preserve vast stretches, including in Alaska, in recent years.
“He wants a climate legacy,” Brinkley added, “and anything that contributes to that legacy is front and center getting his attention.”
Most tourists and campers who come to this slice of southwestern Alaska do not travel with a motorcade of more than a dozen vehicles. But Obama has been “eagerly anticipating” the trip, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said.
Earnest noted that the president often lamented how much time he is forced to spend inside, his movements tightly controlled because of security constraints and the size of his entourage. In addition to a security detail and a physician, there are more than a dozen members of the news media as well as aides and advisers.
Even on Tuesday, Obama — who has referred to his occasional attempts to break out of the presidential bubble as moments when “the bear is loose” — found his outdoor adventure limited. Earnest said the Secret Service had ruled out certain activities that Grylls had proposed for the segment he was taping for his show, “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” which is to air this year on NBC.
But that did not stop the tourist in chief from enjoying his outing. “It is spectacular,” he said as he turned to approach the glacier.