Drive 10 minutes inland from the high-end shops and fancy hotels of Waikiki Beach and you get to a part of Honolulu that feels less homogenized than the made-for-tourists beachfront. There are pawnshops just steps away from old stone churches, and fast-food restaurants down the street from majestic lawns shaded by the giant canopies of tropical rain trees.
This is the neighborhood where President Barack Obama grew up. The leader of the free world once worked at the Baskin-Robbins on King Street.
As the Obama presidency winds down, I toured Honolulu to get a sense of whether Hawaiians were feeling wistful. For nearly eight years, the state had a native son in the White House, a special connection to a U.S. mainland that can otherwise feel quite far away. It’s a shorter flight to Tokyo from here than it is to Washington.
I called DeSoto Brown, chief historian and archivist at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Brown said he still gets a charge when he walks the streets of Obama’s neighborhood.
“The Hawaiian islands are small and physically very far away from everything else in the world,” Brown said. “There’s been this disbelief for someone like me that arguably the most powerful man on the planet was born on this island and grew up on this island. It’s kind of astonishing.”
Brown said he had relished the chance to give out-of-town guests the Obama childhood tour.
The tour includes the Baskin-Robbins, where Obama worked as a student, the now timeworn concrete apartment building where he lived with his grandparents and the prestigious Punahou School, a private high school with elegant stone buildings and lush playing fields, where Obama graduated from in 1979.
“It’s kind of sad that this is over,” Brown said of the Obama presidency. “He’s now taking his place in history.”
Obama’s departure is the coda to what some here describe as Hawaii’s golden years of representation in Washington. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat, served in the Senate for nearly 50 years and was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee upon his death in 2012. Having Inouye and Obama in Washington gave Hawaii an against-the-odds, outsize political profile, one that is unlikely to be matched anytime soon.
“He’s definitely a hometown boy,” said Kirk Caldwell, the mayor of Honolulu, who a few weeks ago spent time with Obama during a presidential visit. “He has shave ice. He wears slippers,” he said, describing the local dessert and the favored footwear. “The dude knows how to body surf.”
Hawaii will miss the spotlight that Obama brought the state during his annual visits, Caldwell said.
“It’s not like we are going to become a backwater,” Caldwell said. “But perhaps some of that attention to Hawaii will not be there anymore.”
The mayor said the president had told him that he hoped to get a place in Hawaii after he leaves office.
If there is an upside to the end of the Obama presidency for Hawaii, it is that Obama will be returning to the islands without the massive motorcades that created traffic chaos every time he visited from Washington.
“They won’t be blocking the highway for him anymore,” said Ron Field, a retired aeronautical engineer from the mainland who lives in Obama’s old neighborhood. “He’ll have to get in line like everyone else.”