HONOLULU—In Hawaii, they call it Barack Obama's ohana or family—a reference to his philosophy that America at its best should be a big, harmonious community like his idealized version of the Aloha State, where he was born and spent his boyhood and adolescence. Of course, Hawaii has its own history of conflict and prejudice, but that's not the part of the islands' culture that Obama chooses to emphasize. Instead, it is the parallel tradition of respect for diversity, tolerance, and inclusion that he prizes as a model for what he hopes to bring to the country if he wins the presidency this fall. In fact, his Hawaiian background is, in many ways, a key to understanding who the Democratic front-runner really is and what an Obama presidency would mean.
There are other important parts of Obama's past that also provide insight into his values and his modus operandi, but Obama says the "aloha spirit" remains his personal and political inspiration. "I do think that the multicultural nature of Hawaii helped teach me how to appreciate different cultures and navigate different cultures, out of necessity," Obama says. "That carries over now to the work that I do because obviously that's part of my job, not just as a candidate but also as a senator. The second thing that I'm certain of is that what people often note as my even temperament I think draws from Hawaii. People in Hawaii generally don't spend a lot of time, you know, yelling and screamin' at each other. I think that there just is a cultural bias toward courtesy and trying to work through problems in a way that makes everybody feel like they're being listened to. And I think that reflects itself in my personality as well as my political style."
A close examination of his background might surprise skeptics who have criticized him as an elitist educated at posh schools such as the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu and Harvard Law. Those critics say he doesn't understand the problems of white working-class people, who have voted against him in key swing states and will be a crucial voting bloc in the November election.
But Obama's friends and associates say his upbringing in Hawaii is much closer to the experience of everyday, middle-class Americans than his critics think. "I haven't seen any air of superiority," says retired Hawaii state Judge Jim Burns, who has known the family for years and is now a delegate for Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
Stanley Ann Dunham, his mother, was something of a flower child who instilled in her children the ideals of community and equality. Punahou teachers and administrators fostered the goals of inclusion and service. Even though he was surrounded by the sons and daughters of wealth and privilege, his family came from modest means, and he worked during the summers, including a stint at Baskin-Robbins scooping ice cream. "Many of my classmates had big homes and fancy cars of their own and were living much more lavishly than I was," Obama recalls. "And I'm sure that helped shape some of my attitudes as well, just in the sense of sort of an appreciation of people who are having to work hard to get where they need to go, because nothing would be handed to him. I think it made me hungrier, a little hungrier than I might have otherwise been."
Standing out. He was one of only a half-dozen African-Americans out of 3,700 students at Punahou, a school dominated by the children of affluent whites, Japanese, Chinese, and native Hawaiians. Even though he stood out, Obama seemed to fit in happily with his peers. Teachers and friends from that era say he was affable and good-natured and never showed the inner turmoil that he wrote about in his memoir, Dreams From My Father. Despite perceptions, he wrote, he was struggling with an identity crisis as a black man in white-dominated America—resentful, drifting, sometimes angry.
"I was not aware of that until I read his book," says Eric Kusunoki, his homeroom teacher at Punahou. "He got along well with everybody. He was always respectful and courteous." When he first met Obama, Kusunoki mispronounced his name as "Bare-ick," to which the student replied nonchalantly, "Just call me Barry." Obama was a B student, Kusunoki said, but he could have done much better if he had "pushed himself." He wrote for the literary magazine but never showed an interest in student politics.