Thursday, December 25, 2008

Obama's "Aloha Spirit"

Jeff Zeleny (NY Times):

Even at the end of his long journey to win the White House, one question about Barack Obama came up again and again: How did he appear to stay even-tempered and levelheaded while traveling such a grueling road?

At least part of the answer can be found here on the island of Oahu.
As Mr. Obama walks along the beaches while on vacation, returning to the place of his birth and his adolescence, he is relaxing after the most trying year of his life and recharging for the responsibilities that await. In both cases, friends say, he is doing it with an unexcitable steadiness that is a product of his Hawaiian upbringing.

The mood of Mr. Obama, to many observers here in Hawaii, embodies the Aloha Spirit, a peaceful state of mind and a friendly attitude of acceptance of a variety of ideas and cultures. More than simply a laid-back vibe, many Hawaiians believe in a divine and spiritual power that provides a sustaining life energy.

“When Obama gets on television, the national pulse goes down about 10 points,” said Representative Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, who was close friends with Mr. Obama’s parents. “He has this incredibly calming effect. There’s no question in my mind it comes from Hawaii.”

Mr. Abercrombie, who has known the president-elect since he was born, said Mr. Obama’s tranquil, even-keeled mannerisms resembled those of his grandfather, Stanley Dunham. As a child, Mr. Obama would follow Mr. Dunham everywhere, walking through the neighborhoods of Honolulu and beyond.

“He gives off a little oasis of calm,” said Mr. Abercrombie, who is spending the Christmas holidays in Hawaii. “He is peaceful water in the maelstrom, which will serve him very well in these circumstances when there happens to be a crisis.”

Only a year ago, many of his admirers fretted that Mr. Obama was too passive in his battle against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Later, some Democrats worried whether he had the tenacity to fight Senator John McCain and the Republican establishment.

It was only as the economic crisis deepened and a full-on recession was declared that Mr. Obama’s hard-to-ruffle demeanor came into focus as a valuable attribute — not only as a candidate but, presumably, as a president-elect.

Mr. Obama is spending Christmas secluded in a compound of rental houses that he and his family are sharing with a group of friends from Chicago along the handsome beaches of Kailua, on the windward coast of Oahu. It seems a world away from the hustle of Honolulu, which is the face of Hawaii for many residents of the continental United States who have never traveled to this part of the world.

For Mr. Obama, it is his first trip back since his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died in the hours before the election. He and his half-sister, who lives on the island, and other family members held a private memorial service on Tuesday at First Unitarian Church in Nuuanu for the woman who helped raise him.

“In recent weeks, I have had an opportunity to mourn our grandmother’s passing. However, Barack has not,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister, said in a statement to reporters in Honolulu. “I also hope that Barack has an opportunity to wash off his stress in saltwater and re-energize for the long road ahead.”

As he traveled across the United States mainland during the presidential race, campaigning on a promise of a different kind of politics, Mr. Obama was repeatedly asked by voters and reporters whether he had the stomach to win the contest. His standard answer? He learned how — and when — to use his sharp elbows from navigating the thorny terrain of Chicago politics.

Left unsaid was that he learned his composure from Hawaii.

“He has more Hawaii in him than Chicago; he’s laid-back, cool and collected,” said Neil Kent, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has lived on the island for three decades. “It’s hard to express anger here. It’s a very small, enclosed environment in which you have to live with other people.”

Mr. Kent, who traveled to Ohio to volunteer for the Obama campaign in the final weeks of the presidential contest, said that as he watched Mr. Obama deliver speeches at rallies, there was an unmistakable air of Hawaii in his mannerisms and demeanor.

That is not to say, of course, that Mr. Obama did not occasionally grow agitated at his advisers, grimace when he was asked to sign one more autograph or openly scowl at reporters who sought to ask him questions during the campaign.

Even on the first full day of his Hawaiian vacation, as he walked onto a golf course in Waimanalo, he turned to a group of photographers and declared: “O.K. guys, come on. How many shots do you need?” The next day, aides said he was furious when paparazzi took a shot with a long zoom lens, showing the president-elect’s buff pectorals.

There is, of course, little expectation of privacy for Mr. Obama and his family. But friends say he has no plans to discontinue vacations, to Hawaii and elsewhere, after he becomes president.

This summer, as Mr. Obama visited in London with David Cameron, the head of the British Conservative Party, he was overheard talking about how leaders need to take time away to think. Without downtime, Mr. Obama said, “you start making mistakes or you lose the big picture.”
So Mr. Obama intends to be here until Jan. 1, recharging the Aloha Spirit.

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