Islands' Influence Seen in Obama's Cool

Islands' Influence Seen in Obama's Cool - By Philip Rucker, Washington PostIn his two weeks in Hawai'i, Barack Obama oozed Island cool: the black shades and khaki shorts, the breezy sandaled saunter that suggested he had not a care in the world.He strolled shirtless near the beach, enjoyed shave ice and the local seaweed-wrapped snack 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 Hawai'i. 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 suggested that Obama was too passive in his battles against Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain."That's Hawai'i," declared Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawai'i), 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 Hawai'i." But to understand Hawai'i is to make sense of America's most exotic outpost. It's 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.Hawai'i is so diverse that there is no majority race. It's a land where residents talk so openly about identity that many call themselves "chop suey": chopped up meats and vegetables poured over white rice.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 Hawai'i 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," Burris said.As Michael Carney, a Honolulu transplant from the Mainland, observed, drivers in Hawai'i 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."Hawai'i 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."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 University of Hawai'i's anthropology department. 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 is a theory of behavioral science that people living on islands 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 Hawai'i. "You have to get over your quibbles quickly."Obama's presidency comes at a seminal moment for Hawai'i. In 2009, it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of statehood, and islanders are assuming greater power in Washington. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat whose 45 years in Congress span nearly all of his state's modern history, will become chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee. The state's junior senator, Daniel Akaka, also a Democrat, 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 Hawai'i influenced him. 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 2004, he told a Honolulu audience:"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. There is no doubt that the residue of Hawai'i 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 Hawai'i."

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