Far West of Washington, Calm Before the Term
Friday, December 26, 2008
KAILUA, Hawaii -- When Barack Obama vacationed on Oahu as a presidential candidate in August, he was seen all over the island: playing basketball at his alma mater, eating shave ice with his daughters, bodysurfing in the Pacific, touring the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and trekking to a scenic overlook atop windward peaks.
But this month, returning to his former home as president-elect, Obama has gone from Hawaii's tourist in chief to its hermit in chief. He has been unusually private at the start of his 13-day holiday vacation, providing an early glimpse of what any tropical getaways during his presidency may be like.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, have paid regular early-morning visits to a nearby Marine Corps base for workouts. Yesterday, he visited with Marines and their families who were eating Christmas dinner at the base. And the president-elect has been photographed playing golf and walking on the beach.
Otherwise, Obama has largely secluded his family at a compound of oceanfront estates, guarded by seven-foot walls made of thick stone and lava rock and nestled along a quiet sliver of white-sand beach where Hawaii's kings once gathered. Unlike in August, the Obamas have not yet ventured out to eat, preferring to enjoy meals prepared by private chefs at their Kailua home.
The president-elect's only public remark since he arrived here Saturday was to wish a few dozen locals "Mele Kalikimaka," the Hawaiian translation for "Merry Christmas," outside the gym on Christmas Eve. (His radio address delivered Wednesday was taped in Chicago before he flew to the isles, aides said.) And while his transition team released a report Tuesday detailing contacts between his aides and embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the president-elect said nothing himself about the matter.
"People recognize that he came to Hawaii to rest and enjoy the holidays," said Charles J. Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School and close friend of the Obamas. "For the girls and Barack and Michelle, it was the right thing to do." Each time Barack Obama visits Hawaii, Ogletree said, "you could see the pressure released from his body."
Some locals said they understood why Obama has made the trip a quiet one. "Now that he's president-elect, there are very weighty matters to deal with," said John Monahan, president of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. "It's important that we all take the time to recuperate, and I think that's what he's doing. He's recharging the batteries."
As is tradition, Obama is traveling with a circle of longtime friends from Chicago, who will form his kitchen cabinet, and their families. With him at the Kailua compound are Martin Nesbitt, a businessman and frequent basketball partner, and Eric Whitaker, a South Side doctor who delivered Obama's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Valerie Jarrett, who will become a White House senior adviser, is planning to arrive soon.
Aides have revealed few details about this trip, but Ogletree said the vacationing families usually organize soccer matches and play games such as dominoes and bid whist. "The remarkable thing is that all of these people have decided to go to Barack's homeland of all places to sort of find some time for themselves and to reinforce their lifelong friendship," Ogletree said.
"It's a time to spend meaningful time with your closest friends and have some real serious dialogue about both silly things and critically important things," he added. "That's what the president needs, to have people he can talk with about whether he's gaining weight or quitting smoking."
Also staying with the Obamas in Kailua are his half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, her husband and their young daughter, who live about 15 miles away in Honolulu. They joined the Obamas on Tuesday to remember their grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, at a private memorial service.
Dunham died of cancer at age 86 on the eve of the presidential election. After the service, the siblings drove to a rocky bluff -- the same lookout where Obama tossed a lei into the ocean in honor of his deceased mother -- and scattered Dunham's ashes.