Little Hawaii, not exactly a mighty player on electoral college maps, has nonetheless made an impressively disproportionate contribution to the revitalization of the Democratic Party via the temperament of our leader. According to Philip Rucker’s article in today’s WaPo, “Hawaii’s Still Waters Run Deep for the President-Elect,” Hawaii’s contribution comes from the “aloha spirit,” as a defining element of President-elect Obama’s character. Rucker’s report on Obama’s just-concluded two weeks in his real home state begins with this description of the mellowest President-elect in memory:
In his two weeks in Hawaii, Barack Obama has oozed island cool: the black shades and khaki shorts, the breezy sandaled saunter that suggested he had not a care in the world. Who said anything about the presidency?
He strolled shirtless near the beach, enjoyed a shave ice and a local seaweed-wrapped delicacy called Spam musubi. One day, the president-elect flashed the friendly “shaka” sign, shaking his pinky and thumb in a local surfing gesture.
But for the BlackBerry clipped to his left hip, Obama appeared to be channeling the aloha spirit of his native Hawaii. Far more than a greeting, Hawaiians’ aloha — which has many meanings — often connotes a certain laid-back live-and-let-live attitude. Translated literally, it means the breath of life. But aloha is also sometimes interpreted as an acronym for five words meaning kindness (akahai), unity (lokahi), agreeability (olu’olu), humility (ha’aha’a) and patience (ahonui).
Rucker’s report is accompanied by Alex Brandon’s wonderful photo of Obama body surfing, maybe the coolest pic of any President yet taken. (The New York Times web version has brighter colors) You couldn’t ask for a better visual analogue for a leader riding the high tide of favorable public opinion, or even better, a leader who finds harmony in nature.
How does the aloha spirit inform Obama’s political style? Rucker nails it well:
Friends here say the country’s first island-born president-elect has long carried more than a touch of the aloha spirit in his temperament. During the campaign, many admirers questioned whether Obama was too passive in his battles against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain.
“That’s Hawaii,” declared Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a contemporary of Obama’s parents who has known the president-elect since birth. “You take negative energy and you process it through you and it comes out as positive energy. . . . Every time Obama comes on television now, the collective blood pressure in the United States goes down 10 points. He cools the water. He’s sober and he speaks sensibly in a calm manner that breeds confidence.”
As Obama’s wife, Michelle, has said, “You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii.”
Or as Obama himself is quoted as saying in the caption of the aforementioned WaPo photo, “What’s best in me, and what’s best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii.”
Jeff Zeleny’s earlier New York Times report on Obama’s trip “Obama’s Zen State, Well, It’s Hawaiian,” reaches a similar conclusion:
The mood of Mr. Obama, to many observers here in Hawaii, embodies the Aloha Spirit, a peaceful state of mind and a friendly attitude of acceptance of a variety of ideas and cultures. More than simply a laid-back vibe, many Hawaiians believe in a divine and spiritual power that provides a sustaining life energy.
“When Obama gets on television, the national pulse goes down about 10 points,” said Representative Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, who was close friends with Mr. Obama’s parents. “He has this incredibly calming effect. There’s no question in my mind it comes from Hawaii.”
…“He has more Hawaii in him than Chicago; he’s laid-back, cool and collected,” said Noel Kent, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has lived on the island for three decades. “It’s hard to express anger here. It’s a very small, enclosed environment in which you have to live with other people.”
None of which is to argue that there are no racial tensions or other forms of social stress in Hawaii. But just from my visit to Hawaii a couple of years ago, I think Zeleny and Rucker are on to something about the aloha spirit informing Obama’s temperament. Let’s hope it’s contagious.