As Hawaii's first president, Obama put spotlight on islands

As Hawaii's first president, Obama put spotlight on islands
(Image: White House)
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lay wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial in December 2016. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lay wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial in December 2016. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remember Pearl Harbor attack 75 years ago (Image: Hawaii News Now)
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remember Pearl Harbor attack 75 years ago (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Eight years ago, a fresh-faced U.S. senator who represented Illinois and grew up in Hawaii surprised the nation by defeating Washington veteran U.S. Sen. John McCain to become the first black man elected to the White House.

In Hawaii, Obama's election also felt historic, but perhaps for different reasons.

In the 47-year-old Obama, Hawaii residents saw themselves. They saw an affable, humble and charismatic local boy who talked about the aloha spirit and who referenced the diversity of the islands.

"In his conduct, I saw Hawaii," said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in a recent interview with Hawaii News Now. "In his respect for others, in his appreciation for diversity, and in his personal dignity, I think we see a lot of the attributes that we all care about so much in the state of Hawaii."

As Obama prepares to leave the White House, many in the islands are reflecting on his legacy as Hawaii's first president -- and pondering how his presidency will have lasting impacts on the state. No doubt in large part due to his Hawaii upbringing, Obama brought a different kind of attention to the islands, experts say, ensuring that the 50th state wasn't seen merely as a tourist destination, but as a place that could also become a gathering place for serious global conversations and as a model for everything from sustainability to race relations.

"The important legacy of President Obama was that what people in Asia-Pacific haven't seen for years, he put in articulate speeches: The importance of Asia-Pacific globally, where the action really is happening," said Richard Vuylsteke, president of the East-West Center in Manoa.

Throughout his two-term presidency, Obama made several stops on Oahu for his holiday vacations. But more importantly, he brought major international conferences and world leaders here, while also making executive decisions that would deeply impact the state and nation.

Under Obama, Asia-Pacific became focus

The international spotlight would shine on Hawaii in the first year of Obama's presidency, when Obama in 2009 announced that he had selected Hawaii as the host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, one of the most important international forums.

In November 2011, delegates from 21 countries -- including Obama himself -- and more than 10,000 other participants gathered in Honolulu for the event that focused on economies, trade and investment across the Asia-Pacific.

APEC was arguably one of the biggest, high-profile global events for the state, pumping an estimated $120 million into the economy and essentially putting Hawaii at the center of attention for global conversation.

Vuylsteke, who met with Obama in December, said Obama's choice of Hawaii to host APEC was somewhat of a no-brainer given his personal relationship with the islands along with a deep-rooted understanding and interest in Asia-Pacific affairs.

Hawaii taking on such a big event also helped prove this geographically small state could not only handle such a massive undertaking, but could also pull it off in style, Vuylsteke said. And because of this, there's a strong sense of confidence that Hawaii has the capability to do something like this again in the future.

Vuylsteke added that because of Obama, secretaries of state also made special stops in Hawaii -- Hillary Clinton in 2010 and 2011, and John Kerry in 2014 -- to deliver speeches focused on Asia-Pacific engagement.

"Even though he's no longer going to be president in a few days here, we should continue to embrace the idea that Asia-Pacific is where things are happening and we're a player in it and I want to make sure that legacy continues but also grows," Vuylsteke said.

Conservation was also a cornerstone of Obama's presidency, and his knowledge of Asia and the Pacific offered him a special lens for those discussions.

In August 2016, the president addressed a panel of global leaders in Honolulu prior to the International Union for Conservation of Nature -- another major event in the islands -- discussing the importance of working together as nations to figure out solutions for improving the environment.

He talked about the importance of the Pacific islands in his own life and shared how he would visit Hawaii ever since his first daughter was born.

"I want to make sure when they're bringing their children here or their grandchildren here that they're able to appreciate the wonders and the beauty of this island, and the wonders and the beauty of the Pacific," Obama said in his speech at the East-West Center. "That's why we have to unite to move forward. We have to row as one. If we do, we might just save the one planet that we've got."

He also explained his decision to quadruple the size of the Papahanaumokua Marine National Monument, a historic designation that made the monument the largest marine conservation area in the world at a time when ocean ecosystems are under increasing threat from global climate change.

Schatz proposed the expansion in June, and called the designation "one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans."

Obama turns eye to Hawaii history

In the 1940s, Hawaii became a significant part of world history, first with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which threw the U.S. into World War II, followed by the order of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps across the nation, including one on Oahu.

In a sense, Obama reshaped fragments of these historic moments, or at least shed light on some dark periods in Hawaii's history in a way that aimed to prevent history from repeating itself.

In 2015, he designated the Honouliuli Internment Camp in Kunia as a national historic monument in hopes of preserving the history of one of America's darkest days.

"My hope is that the site will be preserved and presented in such a way that people will get the sense of what it must've been like," said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on the designation, "and to also acknowledge that this dark period of our country's history should never be repeated, but the stories need to be told."

But perhaps one of the most pivotal moments that put Hawaii in the spotlight was near the end of Obama's presidency, when he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in December 2016 to lay wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial -- a powerful act of reconciliation 75 years after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Abe's visit highlighted the strength of U.S.-Japan relations and how far the two nations have come.

Hawaii as the 'winter White House'

And then there were, of course, the president's holiday vacations in Hawaii, when he and the first family would spend the last few weeks of December on Oahu every year since his oldest daughter, Malia, was born.

Staying in an upscale Kailua vacation home, he would typically enjoy multiple rounds of golf at various courses across the island, beach days at Bellows Air Force Station, workouts at the Marine Corps Base, shave ice at Island Snow and dining with the first lady and friends at high-end restaurants like Nobu Honolulu and Alan Wong's.

But being president meant his vacations weren't always so relaxing. In 2008, a thunderstorm knocked out power throughout Oahu. The following year, a man infamously known as the "underwear bomber" allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Air flight. Obama spent hours in security briefings.

Other highlights included a security scare in 2010, when police pursued a driver who sped through a security checkpoint near the Obama's holiday home, and in 2012, when he had to cut his vacation short just after four days to return to Washington to deal with fiscal threats.

He appeared to take all of these incidents in stride, though, simply proving that his often calm and collected demeanor was attributed to his upbringing in Hawaii. As Michelle Obama famously said, "You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii."

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said it this way: "It's very evident and clear that he never forgot where he came from. Throughout his time, he has treated with respect, he's treated people with aloha, whether they agreed with him on different issues or disagreed with him, through it all he has made the people of Hawaii proud."

It was also in Kaneohe where Obama would make delivering Christmas Day speeches to Marines a holiday tradition.

Every year, he and First Lady Michelle Obama would thank troops for their service to the country. During his last vacation in Hawaii as president, he said it has been the "privilege of my life to serve as your commander in chief" and "although this will be my last time addressing you as president, I want you to know that as a citizen, my gratitude will remain and my commitment to standing by you every step of the way, that won't stop."

In Hawaii, 'we're relevant'

There's no doubt that over the last eight years under Obama, Hawaii has changed.

In just a few days, Obama will leave the White House a changed man, too. And his formative years in Hawaii remain key to understanding the 44th president. "President Obama is our keiki o ka aina, and his deep understanding of Hawaii and the aloha spirit clearly helped to shape his presidency," Hirono said.

Vuylsteke, of the East-West Center, said Obama's presidency has also opened the door to people nationally and internationally thinking about Hawaii "in a different way."

"It's something we should build upon, not as a largesse -- as a gift to us -- but something we deserve because we're relevant," he said.

Mobile users: To see a slideshow of Obama's presidency, click here. To see a timeline of Obama's presidency and his Hawaii milestones, click here.

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