Why You Can't Understand Obama Until You Understand Hawaii

"What's best in me, and what's best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii."

The Obamas have arrived in Hawaii for their ninth consecutive Christmas ― a holiday tradition Michelle Obama has said is especially meaningful for the family.

“Because it’s such an important tradition, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world,” she said last year before the annual trip.

While Chicago is touted as the family’s home ― and the future home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, much to the Aloha State’s chagrin ― the president was born and raised mostly in Hawaii, and its unique culture played a crucial part in shaping his worldview.

As Obama reminded the world during last year’s Paris climate talks, “I am an island boy,” which means he has special empathy for the small island nations that are being affected most by climate change.

But the island influence doesn’t stop there. Michelle Obama once said, “You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii.”

Here are three things about the president’s boyhood home that give every appearance of having helped him become the man he is now.

Hawaii is a melting pot.

Obama in 1979 during his high school graduation in Hawaii with his maternal grandparents.
Obama in 1979 during his high school graduation in Hawaii with his maternal grandparents.
Barack Obama Presidential Campaign

There is no ethnic majority in Hawaii. Instead, you’ll find a melting pot of diversity, including people of Filipino, Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Samoan and European descent. Hawaii has the highest percentage of multiracial Americans and the lowest percentage of white Americans of any state in the country.

As a multiracial child himself, Obama found comfort growing up amid Hawaii’s diversity. “No place else,” he told a Honolulu audience in 2004, “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 Hawaii 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 Hawaii.”

Two decades after he graduated from Honolulu’s Punahou School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the state, Obama wrote in the school’s magazine: “The opportunity that Hawaii offered ― to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect ― became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”

The state operates on “island time.”

Obama waves a shaka to a crowd after buying "shave ice."
Obama waves a shaka to a crowd after buying "shave ice."
JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

You know those long pauses in Obama’s cadence? His slow and measured decision-making process? Some would argue it’s all a result of growing up on island time. Life slows down in Hawaii ― the culture puts a high value on thoughtfulness and savoring the moment.

This is most noticeable in day-to-day interactions, when Hawaii locals take their time and “talk story” ― a local practice that emphasizes meaningful conversations, sharing stories and ideas, and simply spending more time with one another. When disagreements arise, Hawaii residents often use a process called “ho’oponopono,” which relies on discussion and forgiveness to resolve conflicts.

Obama is known for his tendency to slow down when making big decisions, and for his preference for carefully considering and talking through all sides of an issue ― habits that are familiar to many in the Aloha State.

The aloha spirit is real.

It’s been said of Obama (not always favorably) that he has a tendency to “lead from behind.” In a 2011 blog post, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza described that style as “the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding.” Lizza quoted Nelson Mandela on this form of subtle power:

I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.

One could just as easily call this style “leading with aloha.” The aloha spirit is often characterized as a warm and fuzzy feeling of goodwill, but in the political sphere, it has real and practical implications.

According to Jerry Burris, a political reporter and co-author of The Dream Begins, a book about how Hawaii shaped Obama, politicians in Hawaii are supposed to be mild-mannered and humble.

“You go to a rally and the politician wants to hang in the back of the crowd,” Burris told The Washington Post in a 2009 interview. “He doesn’t think he should be the star of the show.” (For an example of this, look no further than Hawaii Gov. David Ige [D], whose low-key inauguration speech last year was a model of how Hawaii politicians are expected to act.)

The combative culture of Washington, D.C., may have rubbed off on Obama somewhat, but his most common mode is still one of calm, even passivity, as we memorably saw during the 2012 presidential debates. The past seven years have seen plenty of periods of heightened emotion in America, but the president’s reputation for coolheadedness remains intact.

“That’s Hawaii,” Neil Abercrombie, a former Democratic governor of Hawaii and an old friend of Obama’s father, told The Washington Post in 2009. “You take negative energy and you process it through you and it comes out as positive energy.”

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