HONOLULU — Stanley Chang hatched a plan last year to overcome seven years of failed attempts to name something after Hawaii’s most famous native son.
His target: Sandy Beach, a stunning strip of sand and volcanic ash that he hoped to re-christen “Barack Obama Beach.”
Chang had heard from a congressional staffer that Obama often spoke fondly of body surfing there as a teen. And he had read an interview in which the president described his ideal day as one spent at the Oahu beach.
“It was almost a prose poem,” Chang said. Obama imagined a sea turtle swimming in profile, “like a hieroglyph in the water,” the rolling crest of a perfect wave, the sunset “glittering” as the swimsuit-clad commander in chief sipped a soda.
Chang, who recently stepped down from the Honolulu City Council, submitted his bill, insisting that the beach was one of the president’s “favorite places in the world.”
Like all of the previous Obama naming efforts, however, it has gone nowhere. This week, the first family returned to Hawaii for their eighth straight vacation here since Obama was elected president in 2008. For Hawaiians, the visit will mean traffic snarls and tight restrictions on flying any drones that Santa might have left under the Christmas tree.
Obama’s return to the place of his birth also calls to mind an embarrassing record of legislative stumbles: Since 2009, Hawaii’s politicos have sought to name two schools, an abandoned lot, a scenic overlook and two state holidays after Obama. An effort to put the 1960s-era cinder-block apartment building — where he lived — on the National Historic registry also fell short.
For now, the most famous thing that bears Obama’s name here is the “Snowbama,” a shaved ice that’s a mix of lemon, lime, cherry and passion guava flavors and sells for $4 at Island Snow, one of the president’s favorite vacation haunts.
Other states have had better luck naming things for Obama. Earlier this month, Florida’s Riviera Beach renamed Old Dixie Highway for Obama, and it wasn’t even the first town in Palm Beach County to honor him. Nearby Pahokee had already converted East First Street to Barack Obama Boulevard.
Other presidents have also had more success with namings. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, has renamed 109 buildings, roads and schools for the 40th president, including the Washington area’s Reagan National Airport. Its goal is to name one thing for President Reagan in all of America’s counties, which number more than 3,000.
The reasons for the failures in Hawaii are many and varied. Locals, protective of their Polynesian culture, in some cases have balked at abandoning traditional Hawaiian names for places. “People here believe that land has spirit and feeling,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “It’s not just dirt.”
Cost has torpedoed at least one attempt. In other instances, critics have complained that naming efforts are premature as long as Obama is still in office, still so young and still among the living. Local laws prohibit politicians from naming parks or public buildings after people until they have devoted at least 50 years of service to the community or are dead.
“Because he’s still president, it felt a little goofy and opportunistic for people to run around trying to honor him as if his public service was already complete,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
Sometimes, as in the case of Sandy Beach, it’s hard to identify a single point of failure. A few opponents of Chang’s effort simply liked the old name. Others fretted that naming Sandy Beach after Obama might actually be dangerous. The beach boasts big waves, and a notoriously shallow shore break led to 16 severe spinal cord injuries between 2009 and 2013.
“A lot of people break their necks there,” Chang said. “There was a worry that tourists who are not experienced body surfers would be drawn to it because it was Obama’s favorite place.” Sensing the mounting opposition to his proposal, Chang pulled it.
The long, fruitless struggle to stick Obama’s name on something more substantial than a snow cone hints at an even bigger question: How will Hawaii’s first president will be remembered in his home state when he leaves office?
Obama, who passed on the state’s $75 million offer to host his presidential library in favor of Chicago, regularly cites the island as the source of his steady temperament.
“I feel like it fortified me. There’s a certain element of chill,” he said of his Hawaiian upbringing earlier this year. “You got a little Hawaii in the mind.”
As president, he has steered more than $150 million to the state to fund renewable-energy projects, more than tripling the state’s supply of clean power. Earlier this year, he declared the site where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II as a national monument.
Most Hawaiians are confident that the state’s politicians will eventually find something that they can name after the president. A few of the state’s senior politicians and Obama’s half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, have been quietly batting around a plan to build something at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center, where Obama’s mother studied on a fellowship.
The Honolulu City Council is debating a bill that would rescind prohibitions against naming facilities after the living. If it is approved, the council might mount an effort to honor Obama by naming a planned, and as yet unnamed, commuter rail station for him.
The mayor, meanwhile, has his own ideas: He suggested that Lanai Lookout, the prehistoric rocky cliff where Obama scattered the ashes of his mother and grandmother, might someday bear Obama’s name. But he cautioned that nothing was certain.
“I don’t want to get people nervous again,” he said.
The proposal that has come the closest to being realized was one involving a tiny abandoned lot that sits at the address listed on Obama’s birth certificate and would have been re-christened as Barack Obama Birthplace State Park.
Obama appears to have lived at that address for only a few weeks of his infancy, but that didn’t deter Greg Knudsen, chairman of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, who pushed the park idea.
“His first home is of historic importance — like Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin,” Knudsen wrote in a letter to his state representative. “We have an opportunity to quickly establish a fitting tribute to the new president.”
That was back in January 2009. Knudsen’s state representative liked the idea, drew up a resolution and even secured a Republican co-sponsor for it. The plan was to clear the state-owned lot and erect a small statue of Obama that would be visible from the busy Kalanianaole Highway.
The legislation died because it wasn’t clear who would pay for the upkeep of the park.
Today, state Rep. Gene Ward, who was the original Republican co-sponsor, said he wouldn’t back an effort to revive the bill, offering a long list of reasons.
“Given the way he’s handled the presidency and handled the security of our nation,” Ward said, “I just don’t have the heart for it.
“He didn’t put the presidential library here,” Ward continued. “He comes to Hawaii and doesn’t even wear an Aloha shirt.”
But Knudsen hasn’t given up on his dream. He plans to resubmit his proposal to his state representative, a Democrat, next month when the legislature convenes — but it will have one small, but important, change.
This time, he will call it the “Barack Obama Birthplace Garden.”
“I just don’t want people to think this is a big, massive park with expenses and responsibilities,” he said. Maybe, he suggests, the new name will give it a better chance.