WASHINGTON – The White House has seen more than its fair share of visitors lately. And it's not just economic advisers trying to clean up the mess on Wall Street,or wide-eyed tourists lucky enough to land a tour.
Over four weeks,through Columbus Day,George W. Bush is expected to have met with 12 heads of state or heads of government at the White House. Those range from the president of Ghana,Sept. 15,to leaders of Lebanon,the Palestinian Authority and India,who stopped by on Thursday.
The others on his list are the presidents or prime ministers of Afghanistan,Lithuania,Great Britain,Kuwait,Italy,Colombia,Panama and Ukraine.
It's a packed schedule for a president overshadowed by the November election and an ongoing economic crisis that took another turn for the worse Monday. One reason for the visits is convenience – most of the foreign dignitaries are already nearby at the fall meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
But foreign policy is also something the president still has power over,in spite of his short time left in office.
“There's a lot more to do in four months,and I plan on doing it,” Bush said to Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus at the White House Monday.
Some foreign policy experts also see the visits as a way for Bush to assert his power in his final months in office.
Shirley Anne Warshaw,presidential scholar at Gettysburg College,said Bush's unpopularity is causing him to spend far more time welcoming foreign leaders than stumping for Republicans up for election this fall.
“He needs to reassure himself and the nation that he is firmly in control,” she said.
The president – who is closing in on two straight years of approval ratings under 40 percent – can do little about Wall Street woes and has little interaction with a Democratic-controlled Congress,she said.
“Presidents always look to foreign policy to bolster their view in public,” she said.
But others said the meetings are substantive.
John Fortier,research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute,said that Bush may still be trying to work on final foreign policy solutions in spite of his short time left. He cited President Clinton's Middle East peace talks,which were ongoing through December of 2000.
“Second-term presidents are more internationally oriented. That's true of almost everyone. Even presidents more popular than Bush cannot do as much domestically,” he said.
Within the same four weeks in 1988,President Ronald Reagan welcomed six foreign leaders to the White House and met with two others while at the U.N.,said Lisa Jones,archivist at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. During the same time period in 2000, President Clinton met with four,said Kim Coryat,an archives technician at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.
Bush's unpopularity in the election is driving up the volume of visiting foreign leaders,Fortier said.
“Bush is more divorced in this campaign than any other president would be,” he said.
He added that the president's schedule was created long before the current economic fallout on Wall Street. Few expected Bush to be calling on the Democratic Congress for action its final days in session.
“Two weeks ago,that would have been thought of as a crazy idea,” he said.
It was nearly two weeks ago when Ghana President John Kufour visited the White House,in a ceremony filled with cannons firing,trumpets blasting and a crowd of hundreds cheering on the White House South Lawn.
“We're soon to leave office,but I'm going to finish strong – and I know you are,as well,” Bush said to Kufour,whose term also ends soon,in a joint appearance in the White House Rose Garden.
That evening,first lady Laura Bush treated Kufour to a rare state dinner,the sixth in Bush's entire presidency. Only one other visiting foreign dignitary of the 12 will receive a state dinner: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi,who travels to the White House on Columbus Day.
In contrast,Reagan had 57 state dinners in eight years,Jones said. Coryat said Clinton had 31 state visits.
Gordon Johndroe,White House deputy press secretary,said in an e-mail that previous hospitality is one of the factors that determines who receives a state dinner – Bush was honored at formal ceremonies in visits to both Kufour and Berlusconi earlier this year.
“We take a look at a number of factors before extending an invitation to a country for a State Visit,including,are they a good friend and ally of the United States and in some cases,have they given the President and Mrs. Bush a State Visit and therefore it is appropriate for us to reciprocate,” Johndroe said in the e-mail.
The other meetings in the coming weeks are “working visits” in which Bush and the other world leaders discuss foreign policy.
But nearly every visit comes with a purpose,said Dan Hamilton,professor of international studies at Johns Hopkins University. He worked at the State Department under President Clinton,advising the administration about which foreign leaders the president needed to invite to the White House. He said many visits involve foreign policy initiatives the president is still trying to accomplish,such as Middle East peace talks.
“These are serious meetings in terms of what needs to be done,” he said.
Even if President Bush is not popular overseas,a visit with foreign leaders sends a message to their countrymen that their leaders are working hard as well,Hamilton said.
While the visits also act as photo opportunities,Fortier said not to count out the significance of these meetings just yet.
“It's possible that things can still get done. He's still the president,” he said.