Hawaii abuzz about Obama's expected holiday return

AP News
Posted: Dec 12, 2009 1:34 PM

Many in this upscale, oceanside suburb of Honolulu are expecting it to again serve as the holiday getaway for scores of reporters, photographers, federal agents_ and one president.

The White House hasn't formally announced that President Barack Obama and his family will be celebrating Christmas in Hawaii _ or anywhere else _ in part because the health care reform debate in Congress may delay his departure. Gov. Linda Lingle's office and Honolulu police also are remaining silent.

But there are many behind-the-scenes indications that plans are being made, and Kailua is abuzz with anticipation, hoping for an economic boost from another visit by the Hawaii-born president.

"The word is out," said John Stallings, a real estate agent who runs the Web site OurKailuaTown.com. "I'd say it's more than the talk around town that they are returning."

Stallings said he knows for a fact that preparations are being made to house Secret Service agents during the holidays in rental homes near where Obama stayed a year ago. There have also been several news reports indicating a possible presidential vacation starting Dec. 23.

A visit would be Obama's first as president to Hawaii, where he was born and spent many of his childhood years. It's also the first time he's coming home with no relatives living here. Obama's grandmother passed away last year just days before he was elected and his sister has since moved to Washington.

Many expect that Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters will vacation in the same multimillion-dollar beach home where they stayed in a year ago. It's located on the Windward side of Oahu at the base of the towering, green Koolau mountains, about a half-hour drive from downtown Honolulu. The five-bedroom home is in long cul-de-sac and features Kawainui Stream on the other side of the road and the white sands of Kailua Beach out back. It's a pricey neighborhood _ one nearby home is on the market for nearly $13 million.

Neighbors said they aren't concerned that Obama's visit will cause havoc since he and his entourage didn't seem to cause much disruption last year.

"It wasn't problematic," Lisa Kiakona said. "It was kind of neat to be in the mix."

Kern Rogerson was slightly bummed when told Obama is expected to show up soon. But that's only because he regularly kayaks along the Kawainui Stream canal and last year the Secret Service prevented him from launching down the street from where Obama was encamped, he said.

"It's more important to keep him safe," said Rogerson, 59, who lives in neighboring Kaneohe. "I figure it's a small sacrifice."

Obama once regularly visited Hawaii during the holidays to see his sister, Maya Ng-Soetoro, and his grandmother. He last visited a year ago when he was president-elect and the glow of his historic election was still bright even as the country was reeling from the financial crisis on Wall Street. He also vacationed in August 2008 shortly after earning the Democratic nomination.

The economy is still struggling and it will be a tough holiday season for many Hawaii residents, particularly those dealing with job losses or cutbacks in hours, said Brian Schatz, chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party. But Obama remains popular in his birthplace, Schatz said.

Obama "said all along, through the campaign and for the last year, that his concern is not the day-to-day fluctuations of polling data but jobs numbers and how people are actually doing," added Schatz, who like other Hawaii officials carefully couched his comments in a way that would not confirm the president is going to vacation in Hawaii.

Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Jonah Kaauwai said he welcomes Obama back home, but insisted the president's luster is worn. "The excitement of his celebrity is certainly still there, but the actual outcome of his election and what he's been doing I think has reduced the fanfare," Kaauwai said.

If Obama returns to Hawaii, he is not expected to make public appearances, save outings with friends and family, Schatz said. Last year, Obama bodysurfed, played basketball and worked out at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, shot a few rounds of golf and accompanied daughters Malia and Sasha, now 11 and 8, to a local shop that makes shave ice, Hawaii's version of snow cones.

"Last time he came, it did great things for the economy," said Richard Whaley, assistant manager of Island Snow Kailua. "Everybody wanted to come over here and do everything that he did."

That includes eating a "Snowbama" shave ice slathered with guava, cherry and lemon lime syrups _ Obama's choice of flavors. The store still displays an Associated Press photo of Obama and his daughters sitting on a bench outside the shop last year, slurping their shave ice.

"We get Japanese tourists that come in, see the picture and they just freak out about it," Whaley said.

Mary Carter, manager of three gift and art shops along Kailua's main drag, recalled how an Obama aide last year bought merchandise from one of the stores on behalf of Obama's family.

"We're thrilled to death that he's coming back to Kailua," she said, noting that when tourists discover the president has vacationed in Kailua, they want to see what the hubbub is all about.

"They see it in the newspapers. They see it on TV, and then they want to come and see what Kailua has to offer," she added. "As a retailer, that's a good thing for us."