HONOLULU — Local Hawaiians enthusiastically greeted President Barack Obama during his 11-day vacation to his home state.
Obama and his family arrived in Hawaii on Christmas Eve and stayed in a private residence in Kailua, a coastal neighborhood 12 miles from Honolulu. The First Family’s public outings included snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, viewing the new-release “Avatar,” dining at a Hawaiian restaurant in Honolulu and enjoying shave ice, a popular Hawaiian treat, at Island Snow.
While the president and his family preferred their privacy, local shop owners had little problem showing off their unique — and often brazen — demonstrations of love for their native son.
Island Snow, a shave ice and clothing shop, is one of the many local businesses in Kailua to honor the president. “Snowbama” is one of the new flavors on its menu — a combination of cherry, lemon-lime and guava-orange — and, according to one store employee, was the most popular flavor during the president’s visit.
During his 2009 visit to Hawaii, Obama visited Island Snow and was photographed eating shave ice with his daughters and two of their friends. After the photograph was published, people began requesting the same order as the president, so the store named the combination “Snowbama.”
Another Kailua restaurant, Blue Water Shrimp & Seafood Company, recently added “Obama’s Chili” to their menu. The restaurant claims the dish is the president’s original recipe, a combination of kidney beans, ground beef and bell peppers. Like the “Snowbama,” “Obama’s Chili” became a popular order during the holidays.
Other local shops chose to show their support for the president by displaying banners on their storefronts. “Merry Christmas to the Obama Ohana,” read a sign on Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen. “Ohana” is the Hawaiian word for “family.” And near the entrance to Yogurt Mama was a poster with “Yo Mama loves Obama.”
But excitement over Obama’s visit is more than just obsession with fame. “Everyone sees him as Hawaii’s son,” said Bernice Bowers, Obama’s high school classmate who also worked closely with him during the presidential campaign. Obama brings Hawaiian values — namely, respect for other cultures — to his governance, Bowers told the Banner. Because of this, he resonates with the people of Hawaii — he is “personifying local values.”
Eric Kusunoki, Obama’s high school homeroom teacher for four years, added that the president “gained a lot” growing up in Hawaii. Because “everyone is a minority” on the islands, Hawaiians have a broader worldview, are more inclusive, and understand how to cooperate, qualities that Kusunoki sees in the president.
Obama also holds on to friends from his Hawaii days. Bowers explained that when the president visits, he spends time with his close friends from high school, instead of just rubbing shoulders with the powerful. “He has stayed very true to his close friends.”
He “still seemed like the same guy,” said Kusunoki, who spent time with Obama during his August and December 2008 visits. “He was always a good listener,” his teacher added, who had “very good people skills,” and a “good personality.”
For these reasons, Hawaiians respect Obama — and the greatest sign of respect, according to Bowers, is that they give him privacy when he visits.
In Honolulu, Obama paraphernalia has become ubiquitous in local shops. The ABC Store in the Ala Moana mall features an entire display of Obama merchandise, including more than 10 different t-shirt designs, ukulele-playing and surfing Obama dashboard dolls and biographical books with pull-out maps of Oahu identifying Obama tourism spots. Local restaurants also display photographs of the president inside their shops, proving that he was once their customer.
But this enthusiasm is not limited to the commercial side of Hawaiian life. State politicians on both sides of the aisle have recently introduced measures to formally honor the president. Democratic State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa wants to make Obama’s Aug. 4 birthday a state holiday, and Republican State Representative Gene Ward hopes to create the President Barack Obama Birthplace State Park out of an empty plot of state-owned land.
Other efforts include the state legislature attempting to rename his elementary school President Barack Hussein Obama II Elementary School, and enlisting the apartment building where his grandparents lived on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tourist companies have also recognized the president’s origins by adding “Obama tours” to their list of excursions. These companies, like Discover Hawaii Tours and Guides of Oahu, take visitors to Obama’s first home, his high school and the Baskin Robbins where he worked as a teenager. The tours cost between $40 and $60. James Owen, president of Discover Hawaii Tours, said his company added an Obama section to their Pearl Harbor and Honolulu tours in November 2008 after the election. However, this has not affected their profits, Owen told the Banner. In fact, some tourists from red states like Texas and Alaska have complained about this inclusion. Owen also noted that the three Honolulu tour companies offering exclusively Obama tours are having trouble filling buses.
While tourists may not share the same enthusiasm, Hawaiians are simply pleased that their “native son” is among the thousands of annual visitors. “It shows he still loves Hawaii,” said Eric Kusunoki.