Image: Barack Obama
Alex Brandon  /  AP
When many Hawaii islanders look at Barack Obama, they see not only the next president, but a skilled bodysurfer, a man who flashes the “shaka” or hang loose sign, and someone who wears the same rubber slippers they do.
updated 12/31/2008 12:13:39 PM ET 2008-12-31T17:13:39

When many islanders look at Barack Obama, they see not only the next president, but also a skilled bodysurfer and someone who wears the same rubber slippers they do.

Hawaii is overflowing with pride that a son of the islands who shares their culture and traditions is going to the White House. Now that Obama is back in the islands for the winter holidays, the state is giddy.

On Tuesday, supporters squealed, screamed and shouted “Thank you!” when he visited the Honolulu Zoo with his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

Last weekend, supporters clamored to shake his hand and take his picture when he visited a store selling shave ice — a local version of the snow cone — with his daughters and friends.

“It means a lot to the state, to the people,” said Damon Kakalia, a mason, while bodysurfing at Obama's favorite wave site, Sandy Beach. “People back him up 100 percent here. There's no doubt about it.”

Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961, two years after Hawaii became a state. He lived in Indonesia for four years when he moved there with his mother and stepfather, but spent 14 of his first 18 years as an island boy.

Many in Hawaii feel a powerful affinity for Obama even though he moved to the mainland to attend college in 1979 and has since only returned for vacations.

Some of his popularity may be because Hawaii is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But Obama's local roots are a more important, emotional factor.

Christian De Quevedo, who was in the crowd around Obama outside Kokonuts Shave Ice & Snacks last weekend, spoke to the future president as though he was just another island surfer.

“I was like, ‘Ho, Barack, are you going to Sandy's?’ Cause last time he went down there. It's like his favorite place ever. He's like ‘Oh no, they don't let me anymore,’” De Quevedo told KITV. “It's exciting. He's just like right over there.”

Obama didn't say who prohibited his surfing at Sandy's on Oahu's south shore. But given that Sandy's is also known as “Broke-neck Beach,” the Secret Service may have determined it was too dangerous. Or it could be too difficult to secure.

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Al Balderama, president of the Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association, said bodysurfers were proud to see Obama at Sandy's in August when he visited Hawaii for a mid-campaign holiday.

They knew the entire country would see photos and videos of Obama enjoying their storied sport. King Kamehameha II (1797-1824) was known to be a skilled practitioner.

Balderama, a civilian fire inspector at Hickam Air Force Base, said it's clear Obama is as good as any of his bodysurfing association's 180 members.

“He knows what he's doing,” Balderama said. “He's got the nice form.”

A bodysurfer doesn't ride a board, like in better-known forms of surfing.

Instead, the surfer strives to become part of a wave. Bodysurfers must be good swimmers, because they need to kick and generate momentum to get into a wave, Balderama said.

Obama, he noted, didn't wear fins that would have given him extra power. That's the most pure form of the sport, he said.

During this visit, Obama has mostly been golfing. He's twice hit the greens at Mid-Pacific Country Club and once at Olomana Golf Links, a public course where he played as a kid. On Tuesday he played basketball at his alma mater, the private Punahou School.

Mark A. Kam, president of the Punahou Alumni Association, said Obama's repeated visits to Hawaii show he hasn't forgotten where he came from.

Kam lightheartedly pointed to Obama's flip-flops as evidence of how deeply Hawaii is ingrained in him.

“Granted he's in Chicago now, he's cut his teeth in politics in Chicago. But when I saw him walking around town in rubber slippers — I said, OK, that's who he is. That's the local boy that grew up here,” Kam said. “How many other people go away, come back, and slip right back into rubber slippers?”

More substantively, Kam said that Obama carries with him an ability to work with people of different backgrounds that he learned in Hawaii, where there is no majority but a mix of whites, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Japanese, Koreans, Samoans and others. About 20 percent, like Obama, are mixed-race.

“He can bridge those gaps and bring people together instead of being divisive. I think a lot of that was formed here, growing up,” said Kam, who doesn't know Obama personally but has watched his career and spoken with Punahou graduates who know him.

Obama is due to leave New Year's Day after a 12-day vacation on Oahu with his family.

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