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.
Barack Obama in 1979 at his Punahou School commencement with his maternal grandparents, Stanley Armour Dunham and his wife, Madelyn Payne.
Obama Presidential Campaign
As Obama reminded the world during the recent 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
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 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 worldview, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
President Obama enjoys shave ice at Island Snow in Kailua during a 2010 visit.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The State Operates On ‘Island Time’
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.
Obama golfs at the Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua last December.
“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.
“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 Gov. David Ige, 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, former governor 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.”
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.