Barack Obama’s American Ohana .. and the pivot to Asia in the summer of 2015

Sep 13th, 2015 | By | Category: USA Today

Young Barack Obama in the Pacific Ocean at Honolulu.

Barack Obama’s undoubted status as the first African American president of Democracy in America can obscure his greater depths as one of the most distinctive occupants of the office ever, “without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Such were my thoughts, at any rate, while spending some time this summer in Kailua on Oahu, in the Aloha State of Hawaii, where “President Barack Obama and his family have rented a home … for the past seven Christmases ….”

In fact, Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii (about a half-hour drive across and through the volcanic mountains from Kailua), on August 4, 1961. Except for four years when he lived in Indonesia (from ages six to 10) with his mother and her second husband, the future first African American president lived in Hawaii for the first 18 years of his life.

Barack (Barry) Obama (front row, fourth in from right) with his grade nine class at Punahou School in Honolulu.

With “the aid of a scholarship” he “attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school” in Honolulu, “from fifth grade until his graduation from high school in 1979.”  (Just for the record : “Tuition for the 2015 — 2016 school year for Kindergarten — Grade 12 is $22,050.” And it is at least said locally that Obama’s maternal grandfather “pulled some strings” to get his grandson in to Punahou.)

The future president “lived with his mother and sister in Hawaii for three years from 1972 to 1975 while his mother was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Hawaii.”

President Barack Obama with family and friends at the Honolulu Zoo on January 3, 2011 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

He then “chose to stay in Hawaii with his grandparents,” Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, “for high school at Punahou when his mother and sister returned to Indonesia in 1975 so his mother could begin anthropology field work.”

For 14 of his first 18 years, in other words, Barack Obama was born and raised in Hawaii. He would also later become “the first President to have been born in Hawaii.”

And some 20 years after he graduated from Punahou he wrote : “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.”

1. Ohana and the Hawaiian public sector

Young Barack Obama with his grandfather on the beach in Honolulu.

This summer I had my own small personal encounter with these values, when I confessed to our (only recently relocated) Hawaiian hosts that I was impressed by the quite visible and energetic public sector in the Aloha State, working to help we the people (including we visiting tourists) enjoy fulfilled lives and all just get along.

All this, I was told, flowed not from any uniquely social democratic perspective on the formerly misnamed Sandwich Islands – but from a native Hawaiian concept known as “Ohana.”

Intriguingly enough, this same concept also formed a key theme in the 2002 Walt Disney movie, Lilo and Stretch – in which the character Lilo Pelekai nicely explains that  Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind – or forgotten.”

To take just one most immediate case in point, tourism is almost certainly the biggest business in the US State of Hawaii today. And you might say it’s hardly surprising that Hawaiians, whoever they may more exactly be, are very friendly towards tourists.

Grandfather, mother, sister, and Barack Obama in Honolulu.

But it doesn’t quite feel like that, even if it has a similar effect on the consumer. What seems to make almost all human interactions in Hawaii more relaxed and agreeable than in many other places finally appears to run deeper than a trick put on for tourists. And something like “Ohana means family …  Family means nobody gets left behind – or forgotten” is a plausible enough explanation.

In any case the insight is supposed to be that the laid-back new values President Barack Obama has been foisting on a troubled new America these past years are not Socialist in any crazed European sense.

Or even just (what they certainly also are) a revival of the traditions alluded to in the compelling first sentence of De Tocquville’s Democracy in America, very long ago in 1835 : “AMONG the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people.”

Beyond but also along with and accompanying a revival of this traditional American egalitarianism, what Obama is really trying to do is foist the unique and compelling Ohana family culture that has come to prevail in the early 21st century American State of Hawaii on the rest of the USA …

2.  How the Ohana culture today also has its own American hustle

Of course, you can object that this “Ohana means family …  Family means nobody gets left behind – or forgotten” is just a recipe for NOT making America great again. It cannot keep the economy going. Or defend the homeland, etc.

Future President Obama playing basketball for Punahou School in his later teens.

Yet in a recent report on such matters “Hawaii’s unemployment rate of 4.0% was below the national rate of 5.3%.”  A similarly recent CNBC report on “America’s top states to live in 2015” put Hawaii at number one ! And my own anecdotal impression of the unique friendliness of today’s quite diverse Hawaiian people this summer was quite compatible with the same kind of hunger-driven hustle that keeps the Target stores and whatnot humming all over America today.

And then there are the warrior ancestors of the Ohana culture in the State of Hawaii today – big, strong, sea-going people (like the Maori in New Zealand), who united the Hawaiian Islands and struck a deal with the British empire still commemorated in the present US State of Hawaii flag.  O and btw the other really big industry here is US military bases : the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor and all that …

The teenage Barack Obama at his high school graduation, with his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham.

In some broader way as well, Hawaii today seems on the frontier of some new extension of the historic America in a rising new Pacific Age. If you really want to see what Obama’s much maligned pivot to Asia means, go to the City and County of Honolulu.

According to the US Census Bureau “race” classification for 2013, eg, only 26.6% of the population in the State of Hawaii qualifies as “White alone” – compared with 77.7% in the United States at large. (And only 2.3% in Hawaii qualifies as “Black or African American alone” – compared with 13.2% in all of the USA.)

On the other hand, the single largest group in Hawaii is “Asian alone” at 37.7% (compared with only 5.3% in the United States at large). And the third largest group (after “White alone” in second place) is “Two or More Races” – reported as 23.1% in Hawaii, as opposed to the 2.4% reported in all of the USA.

Barack Obama walks on Kailua Beach in Hawaii with daughters Sasha (left) and Malia, August 2008. (Marco Garcia/associated press).

Similarly, “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone” still accounts for a full 10% of the State of Hawaii population today (compared with a mere 0.2% in the United States at large). And – English-speaking Canadians with Quebec much on their minds will be intrigued to hear – there is nowadays a rather diverse Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Whatever its more exact achievements may or may not be, it has helped lodge such traditional Hawaiian values as “Ohana” more securely in the modern political culture of the American state.

There is much more, no doubt, that could be said about all this. But this is probably as much as I am capable of saying even half sensibly at the moment. And the concluding thought I want to leave on is fundamentally upbeat. What residents of older-style states of the Union back east should be comforted by, I think, is the stubborn fact that a Pacific and at least Asian-plurality version of the traditional US state can be so successfully brought to such a flourishing condition as does seem to be the case in Hawaii today. (And of course this is the kind of thing that will really make America great again – and it has finally begun to happen in the real world under the uniquely forward-looking presidency of Barack Obama, who when he goes home for Christmas, throughout his time in office, always goes to Hawaii, and walks with his daughters on the beach. Oh … and btw it is also true enough that the president’s sister currently lives in Honolulu, with her Chinese Canadian husband from Burlington, Ontario and children. And that probably makes it seem more like home for the holidays too.)

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