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.
He was born in Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961, to a Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama, for whom he was named, and Dunham, a white woman from Kansas. They met while students at the University of Hawaii. His father abandoned the family when Barack was 2 years old, leaving them in Hawaii. The couple eventually divorced, and his mother married Lolo Soetoro, a cartographer from Indonesia. The family moved to Jakarta for a while, then Ann moved back to Hawaii with Barack and his half sister, Maya Soetoro, who had been born in Indonesia on Aug. 15, 1970. When Ann and Lolo prepared to return to Indonesia with their small family, the preadolescent "Barry" persuaded his mom to let him stay in Honolulu and live with his grandparents in their small two-bedroom apartment. His mother agreed, concluding that the opportunities were better for him in Hawaii than in Jakarta, and that his grandparents would provide a loving home.
Obama said he was admitted to Punahou, an incubator of young leaders in Hawaii, despite a long waiting list "because of the intervention of Gramps's boss, who was an alumnus." He attended the school on a partial scholarship from age 10 to 18, when he left for college after graduation in 1979.
Obama was a good student at Punahou but not an extraordinary one. His academic excellence came later, when he was in college and law school. But at Punahou, which was just named the top high school for athletics in the nation by Sports Illustrated, he was more interested in enhancing his lifestyle, dating, body surfing, fishing, hiking, and partying. He also experimented with marijuana and cocaine, although not seriously, according to his memoir and his biographer, David Mendell, in Obama: From Promise to Power.
He loved basketball and admired professional star Julius Erving but was relegated to seventh man on the Punahou team, a left-handed role player sent in by his coach for some quick rebounding and scoring. His point production earned him the nickname "Barry O'Bomber." "He was a hard-nosed player," says Alan Lum, a teammate who now teaches second grade at Punahou. "He'd go right at you. We called it 'fierce but friendly.' "
Those days at Punahou are still fresh in Obama's mind. Asked by a friend if he sleeps well despite the pressures of the campaign, he said yes, and for a very special reason: He often dreams serenely about body surfing and playing basketball with his friends back in Honolulu, just as he did as a teen so long ago.