Barack Obama is a little older and a little grayer. But at a speech at the East-West Center’s Hawaii Imin Conference Center Sunday evening, he sounded very much like the hope-and-change leader that vaulted him to the White House in 2008.
The occasion for the speech was a private reception with Obama Foundation guests and community leaders. The nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation was established to “inspire, empower and connect people to change their world,” as a press release this week explained it.
In Obama’s view, the program is a way for Michelle Obama and him to continue caring for the issues they feel deeply about: the environment, income inequality, educational opportunities, the devastation of war, tribal and racial divisions, and the exploitation of people by leaders obsessed with power.
“People cling to power instead of seeing the power in other people,” he said.
Most of the problems in the world, he said, do not face technological or educational barriers. What is needed is human organization and leadership.
“We have a deficit of leadership, and we need new blood,” he said. True leadership features dialogue, listening, inclusion and a “commitment to human dignity.”
The 44th president of the United States made no public mention of the 45th president, Donald Trump, or of the continuing government shutdown.
The focus instead was on Hawaii’s centrality as “a bridge” between east and west, the islands’ centrality to the Obama Foundation program and the rise of the Asia-Pacific region.
“We are once again going to change the world for the better,” he promised.
Obama then smoothly exited behind a curtain, followed by Secret Service. He did not take questions but is reported to have posed for lots of photos with guests prior to his talk.
A Hawaii-Born President
On Saturday, the Obama Foundation held its inaugural program and workshop in Hawaii for 21 “emerging leaders” from the Asia-Pacific region. They include two from Hawaii: Leanne Kealoha Fox and Marvin (Kaleo) Manuel, who were also in attendance at the reception.
Obama’s parents met at the University of Hawaii, where they both were students. Obama joked in his remarks that “I basically wouldn’t exist if it were not for for the University of Hawaii.”
He also said that it is “rumored” that he was born a mile from UH, although he said he could not vouch for it because he was “very small at the time.”
While there were efforts to house Obama’s presidential library in Hawaii, the former president chose the South Side of Chicago for the planned Obama Presidential Center. It is in the same city where Obama, a Democrat, began his career and where former first lady Michelle Obama was born and raised.
The mood of the room Sunday night, bathed in purple-blue, was festive, familiar and intimate — except for the media, which was kept out of the room until just before the president spoke, and then crowded onto a media riser 30 feet from the stage.
Still, the room was emanating love and pride for the islands.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half-sister, told the audience it should feel “exceedingly hopeful about the future.”
Gov. David Ige said in his opening remarks, “There is no better place for nurturing leaders than here in the islands.”
“We are once again going to change the world for the better.” — Barack Obama
The audience at the Imin Center was heavy on local VIPs.
From politics: U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who knew Obama’s parents.
From labor and business: Randy Perreira from the Hawaii Government Employees Association, former Hawaii Medical Service Association executive Tim Johns, Henk Rogers of Blue Planet and Christine Camp of the Avalon Group, to name just a few.
From education: Punahou School President Jim Scott, UH President David Lassner and EWC President Richard R. Vuylsteke.
The food came from the likes of local chefs Alan Wong and Ed Kenney, while local artist Paula Fuga was among those providing music.
Obama said there would be future Obama Foundation events in Hawaii.
He also said he had been golfing and working on a book, though his wife (who was not at the event Sunday) has set the bar pretty high. Her autobiography “Becoming” is the top-selling book in the nation.
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