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Obama leaves Hawaii, readies for re-election fight

By Rob Shikina

LAST UPDATED: 9:42 p.m. HST, Jan 2, 2012

President Barack Obama ended his 10-day winter vacation today, departing from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam aboard Air Force One with his family.

His boarded the plane at 5:25 p.m. against a setting sun with breezy winds and temperatures in the upper 70s, similar to conditions when he arrived a day before Christmas Eve.

Several dozen service members and their families were gathered on the tarmac to bid Obama farewell.

Chief Terry Thomas, of Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, said it was an honor to see Obama and felt a special kinship with the president as a native of Chicago, where Obama served as a U.S. senator. He finally got access to greet Obama through the military after trying three times.

Thomas, 46, was at a similar gathering to see President George Bush off at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, but Bush went into the plane and didn't stop to greet his well-wishers, he said. 

His wife Serena Thomas said they had tried to see Obama at a rally with 20,000 people in Virginia and barely got a glimpse of him. While her husband was stationed in Virginia, they unsuccessfully tried to visit the White House.

"Finally, I can't believe it," she said. "It must be destiny."

She wanted to tell Obama how proud she was of him.

"I think he's doing a great job with everything that's happened over the last several years," she said, citing the oil spill and other issues. "I think he's been dealt a tough hand, and he's dealing with it really well."

Their 12-year-old son Julian, said he was "shocked" and "scared" about the chance to see Obama.

Seven-year-old Elena was planning to write about Obama for a school report about what she did over the winter break.

"I'm happy, excited," she said.

Her mother Rebecca, who asked not to use their last name, prepped her daughter for the chance that Obama would walk up to them.

"When president Obama comes to you, say Happy New Year's," she said.

"She's very nervous."

Before boarding, Obama was greeted by Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Col. Sam Barrett, commander of the 15th wing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

With an eye on the 2012 campaign, Obama wrapped up a low-key Hawaiian vacation and planned to quickly get back in front of voters as he ratchets up his bid for re-election.

After more than a week out of the spotlight, Obama plans to make his presence in the campaign quickly known.

The president will host a live web chat with supporters in Iowa Tuesday night as the caucuses are unfolding. The following day, Obama will travel to Cleveland for an event focused on the economy.

Obama aides said the president will seek to draw a contrast with his GOP challengers during Wednesday's trip to Ohio, a state sure to factor prominently in the presidential campaign.

Aides say Obama spent a bit of time on vacation brainstorming ideas for his Jan. 24 State of the Union address, where he will lay out an agenda that will also serve as the basis for his campaign message. He was also briefed by a small cadre of traveling advisers on some of the international issues looming in 2012, including renewed threats from Iran and a request from Yemen's outgoing, autocratic president to come to the U.S. for medical treatment.

Obama also returns to Washington facing further debate on extending payroll tax cuts, the same issue that consumed Washington for the final days of December.

Congress broke through a stalemate just days before Christmas, agreeing to extend the cuts for two months. Lawmakers will get back to work later this month to negotiate a full-year extension, a proposal Obama supports.

White House officials say the tax cut extension is the last "must-do" legislative item on Obama's agenda this year. His strategy for his fourth year in office will focus largely on taking executive actions that do not need approval from lawmakers as he seeks to break away from a deeply unpopular Congress.

The payroll tax cut debate almost prevented Obama from taking his annual Christmas trip to Hawaii. He delayed the trip nearly a week, finally departing on Dec. 23, just hours after Congress finalized the two-month extension.

The president, wife Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha stayed largely out of the public eye during their trip to Oahu, the island where Obama was born and mostly raised.

The Obamas stayed in a multimillion-dollar oceanfront rental on Kailua Beach, near Honolulu, and surrounded themselves with a close-knit group of family and friends. That included Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who lives on Oahu, and several of the president's childhood friends.

Obama's outing consisted largely of trips to the gym and golf course at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, a military base near his vacation rental. He returned to the gym this morning for one last workout.

The first family also made a few outings around the island, including a snorkeling trip to popular Hanauma Bay and a stop for shave ice, a Hawaiian snow cone.

On Sunday, the president took his family to pay respects to his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and to an exhibit at the East West Centerwhich is featuring a display on the anthropological work of the president's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The exhibition includes photographs taken during Dunham's years of field research in Indonesia, as well as her personal art and artifact collection.

Joining them was Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her family. Soetoro-Ng is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Teacher Education.

Later the Obamas went to the beach at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.

President Barack Obama and his wife and friends dined at Nobu's Waikiki on his last night in Hawaii.

Associated Press contributed to this report.



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