Amid growing public opposition, the Honolulu City Council recently dropped a proposal to rename a popular beach in honor of former patron President Obama. Last year, Hawaii’s legislature adjourned without acting on a bill that would designate the president’s birthday as a state holiday. To this day, local would-be landmarks such as the apartments where Obama lived are without tangible tributes of the man many here once knew simply as Barry.
Despite the immense pride Hawaiians profess about Obama’s historic rise to the presidency, there are few, if any, markers to call attention to his roots here.
“It’s not like you’re going to Mount Vernon,” quipped Democratic U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, contrasting the plantation home of the nation’s first president with a high-rise former residence of its current one.
But what would seem like indifference toward marking Obama’s time here is instead the apparent result of a combination of the state’s humble character and the respect locals say they have for Obama. What they await is a sign of whether Obama returns the affection.
Obama left Hawaii over the weekend after two weeks of what has become the first family’s traditional end-of-the-year vacation here, but such visits increasingly appear less like homecomings. Obama attends luaus and plays golf with old friends, but he and his family stay at a rented home. He hasn't lived here since he left for college and few expect him to return full time when he leaves the White House. He only occasionally interacts with the public, and doesn’t return to the sites of childhood exploits.
In turn, residents mostly leave him alone, acknowledging his desire to use his yearly visits to recharge, yet still seeing him as one of their own.
“It doesn't matter where you live. It's where your heart is,” said Mira Secretaria, who was buying a birthday cake for her niece recently at the Baskin-Robbins where Obama worked as a teenager, just blocks from the hospital where he was born and two of the apartments he spent time in as a child. “I never thought of him as from the mainland. I always thought of him as from Hawaii.”
The debate about Hawaii’s place in Obama’s story is of a piece with a larger one that's playing out as Obama stares down what he calls the “fourth quarter” of his time in office. History will note his place as the first black president of a nation with a fraught racial history, but what remains to be seen is how it will view his policymaking and politicking.
With an eye toward cultivating his legacy, Obama made major moves in recent weeks on climate, immigration and foreign policy, before retreating to the state where he was born.
Here, says Neil Abercrombie, the former governor and longtime congressman, Obama’s experiences formulated his values.
“The very foundation of the president’s worldview is of Hawaii and the Aloha spirit,” said Abercrombie, who boasts perhaps the longest connection to the president, having attended graduate school here with Obama’s father. While Obama’s political career is undeniably linked with Chicago, his personal identity is grounded in Hawaii, Abercrombie said.
“He is entirely comfortable here and I'm confident that, in terms of his personal references post-presidency, Hawaii will always occupy a central place in his heart,” he said. “I haven't the slightest doubt that he will always be returning at one point or another.”
One clear signal of how Obama views Hawaii will come this year when he and the first lady choose the site of his presidential library. Potential hosts include Honolulu as well as New York and his adopted mainland home of Chicago. As the eventual home to the papers documenting their time in office and other relics, modern presidential libraries allow former White House occupants to tend to their legacies and continue to shape public perception of them after their deaths.
In December, Hawaii leaders delivered their vision for an “action-oriented” presidential center in prime waterfront real estate in the Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu that would help serve as a catalyst for the kind of busy ex-president they expect Obama to be.
“Our conception of the presidential center is to have it enable activity rather than stand as a monument,” said Schatz, who has emerged as the chief public booster of Hawaii’s bid. “Part of that is because of Hawaii’s culture, and part of that is understanding that President Obama is going to be in his early 50s [when he leaves office]. I don’t think he wants a museum or statue in his name. I think he wants to continue to be engaged.”
Officials involved in the museum bid say their plans could be adapted whether or not Obama ultimately chooses the state as primary host of his presidential archive. That’s a tacit concession of their bid’s underdog status, one they hope to overcome with a sentimental connection others can’t match.
“If the question is raw political clout or fundraising prowess, then we’re not in a position to go blow for blow with Chicago or New York. There’s no question about that,” said Schatz. “But understanding President Obama requires that you understand Hawaii; it requires that you understand tolerance and multiculturalism. And therefore when the president comes to making this unique and singular and arguably lonely decision, I don’t think it’s going to come down to a traditional analysis of who’s got more juice.”
Obama would hardly be the first president for whom multiple states claim a connection. Kentucky has a Lincoln Heritage Trail that includes the 16th president’s birthplace, while Indiana has preserved Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home as a national memorial. But it is Illinois, where he entered politics and which he left behind only to move to Washington, that calls itself the Land of Lincoln.
Ronald Reagan’s acting and then political careers were launched in California long after he left his birth state of Illinois. Despite his personal affection for places in Illinois like Eureka, where he attended college, the Gipper chose Simi Valley for his permanent presidential archive.
“His formative years were in Illinois. He said himself, ‘I never would have been president if I hadn’t attended Eureka College.’ But there was probably never any consideration to the presidential library being in Illinois,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer.
Shirley, who just finished writing a book on Reagan’s post-White House years, noted that Eureka has nonetheless has become a hub of Reaganalia of its own, and predicted Hawaii will likely do the same, even without a presidential library.
“Those things for President Obama will probably come more quickly after he leaves office,” he said, adding that the way in which Obama exits the presidency will help dictate that. “When Nixon left office, there wasn’t a drive to name things after him.”
Some ambitious local politicians are seeking to get a head start on tributes to Obama, with little success. Tom Brower, a state representative who co-sponsored the bill to establish Aug. 4, the president’s birthday, as Barack Obama Day, said some felt it was a tribute more befitting a dictator than a president. Another legislative effort to make the apartment Obama grew up in a state historic site stalled.
Many here say that a slew of tangible tributes are not in keeping with Hawaii’s character. For example, while lawmakers often dot their constituencies with reminders of their clout, Hawaii has few noting the work of the late Daniel K. Inouye, its iconic former senator. Honolulu law bars, for the moment, naming public structures in honor of living people. The weight of the label of birthplace of a president could change that, though.
“He never really forgot that he grew up in Hawaii, and it shaped him,” Kevin Mizuno, 47, said over an ice cream cone with his daughter at the Baskin-Robbins.
There is no sign yet denoting Obama worked there.
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