Hawaii's Influence on Barack Obama

When visiting his native state last August, Barack Obama hit the beach to body-surf (left) and stroll the shores, here with friend Marty Nesbitt.
When visiting his native state last August, Barack Obama hit the beach to body-surf (left) and stroll the shores, here with friend Marty Nesbitt. "What's best in me, and what's best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii," the president-elect has said. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

HONOLULU -- In his two weeks in Hawaii, Barack Obama has oozed island cool: the black shades and khaki shorts, the breezy sandaled saunter that suggested he had not a care in the world. Who said anything about the presidency?

He strolled shirtless near the beach, enjoyed a shave ice and a local seaweed-wrapped delicacy called Spam musubi. One day, the president-elect flashed the friendly "shaka" sign, shaking his pinky and thumb in a local surfing gesture.

But for the BlackBerry clipped to his left hip, Obama appeared to be channeling the aloha spirit of his native Hawaii. Far more than a greeting, Hawaiians' aloha -- which has many meanings -- often connotes a certain laid-back live-and-let-live attitude. Translated literally, it means the breath of life. But aloha is also sometimes interpreted as an acronym for five words meaning kindness (akahai), unity (lokahi), agreeability (olu'olu), humility (ha'aha'a) and patience (ahonui).

Friends here say the country's first island-born president-elect has long carried more than a touch of the aloha spirit in his temperament. During the campaign, many admirers questioned whether Obama was too passive in his battles against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain.

"That's Hawaii," declared Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a contemporary of Obama's parents who has known the president-elect since birth. "You take negative energy and you process it through you and it comes out as positive energy. . . . Every time Obama comes on television now, the collective blood pressure in the United States goes down 10 points. He cools the water. He's sober and he speaks sensibly in a calm manner that breeds confidence."

As Obama's wife, Michelle, has said, "You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii." But to understand Hawaii is to make sense of America's most exotic outpost. It's the nation's last frontier, the 50th state, a string of volcanic mountains that rose from the sea to be settled first by Polynesians and later by a cultural melange of Asians and Anglos.

Hawaii is a tropical paradise so diverse that there is no majority race, a land where residents talk so openly about identity that many call themselves "chop suey": chopped up meats and vegetables poured over white rice. To resolve disagreements, some locals employ an indigenous practice called ho'oponopono, which means to make things right through discussion and forgiveness.

The traditional Hawaiian way is to hold back rather than assert oneself, said Jerry Burris, a longtime columnist at the Honolulu Advertiser who co-wrote "The Dream Begins," a book about how Hawaii shaped Obama. "You go to a rally and the politician wants to hang in the back of the crowd. He doesn't think he should be the star of the show."

As Michael Carney, a Honolulu implant from the U.S. mainland, observed, drivers in Hawaii rarely cut you off in traffic. "You don't hear honking here," he noted.

Abercrombie said traditional Hawaiian spirituality suggests that "everything is related. The trees, the stones, the sharks, the fish, and you have to fit yourself into nature."

Hawaii is no utopia, of course, despite its stunning natural beauty. Tourism drives the state's economy, but many of the jobs it provides are low-wage and low-skill. Pockets of poverty are spread across Oahu, which with nearly 1 million residents is the state's most populous island.

"Many people have two or three jobs to make ends meet because it's a very expensive cost of living," said Geoffrey White, chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Hawaii. That high cost of living has resulted in a growing homeless population. The state also struggles with a relatively high rate of crystal methamphetamine abuse.

There are consequences to living on a small land mass surrounded by the ocean. There is a theory of behavioral science that islanders behave differently than mainlanders, that on an island competition is not rewarded as well as it is elsewhere.

"When you live on a rock, on an island, you learn to understand that everyone is critical to the success and survival of that space," said Ramsay Taum, a Honolulu native and administrator at the University of Hawaii. "You have to get over your quibbles quickly."

Obama's swearing-in as president comes at a seminal moment for Hawaii. In 2009, it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of attaining statehood, and islanders are assuming greater power than ever before in Washington. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D), whose 45-year tenure in Congress spans nearly all of his state's modern history, will become chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee. The state's junior senator, Daniel K. Akaka (D), heads the Veterans Affairs Committee, while retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a decorated local hero, emerged from the political wilderness to become Obama's nominee for secretary of veterans affairs.

On the campaign trail, Obama rarely talked about how growing up in Hawaii influenced his personal or political values. The politician's narrative has always been firmly rooted in Chicago, where he got his start as a community organizer and cut his teeth in the city's rough-and-tumble politics.

But in one set of remarks in 2004, he told a Honolulu audience of his love for his home state.

"No place else could have provided me with the environment, the climate, in which I could not only grow but also get a sense of being loved," he said. "There is no doubt that the residue of Hawaii will always stay with me, and that it is a part of my core, and that what's best in me, and what's best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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