HONOLULU — Locals here sometimes call Barack Obama a kamaaina, the Hawaiian word for native born or one who has lived here for some time. Chicagoans, of course, think of him as a South Sider who often wears a White Sox cap.
Both are correct, and both also illustrate an increasing pull on the future 44th president from those who want to use his native-son status for their own marketing advantage.
So far, Chicago seems to be winning the battle. But Obama’s 12-night vacation on the island of Oahu has again raised Hawaii’s profile as an integral place in the narrative of his life.
Obama T-shirts are scattered amid the dozens of shops that peddle knickknacks along Waikiki Beach. Some also see the potential for more regular Obama tour bus stops as part of routes that already go to such places as Pearl Harbor and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
“When he lived here, it was 30 years ago,” said John Monahan, chief executive of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. “But the Hawaii experience deeply shaped who he is.”
Monahan’s organization recently created a Web site dedicated to Obama’s Hawaiian connections and experiences. “You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii,” it quotes Michelle Obama as saying.
The site showcases the many recreational activities Obama enjoyed when he last vacationed in Hawaii in August. There are photos of him touring the USS Arizona, bodysurfing, gazing across a lush valley from a scenic overlook, playing golf and walking on a beach.
On this vacation, which ends Thursday, he has played golf three times, visited a friend’s home on the North Shore, stopped at a marine life park, sampled local food and hung out at an oceanside compound in Kailua.
The Hawaiian marketing effort is not unlike one called “Presidential Chicago” that is sponsored by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, which provides visitors with information on Obama hangouts, favorite restaurants and how to get White Sox tickets.
Springfield, Ill., is also working to get a piece of the Obama tourism action, highlighting his years in the legislature and how he announced his bid for the presidency outside the Old State Capitol.
Claiming local ties to presidents has gone on as long as the nation has existed. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was born in Kentucky, spent part of his youth in Indiana and made Illinois his home. But Illinois has most successfully tied itself to the 16th president.
Hawaii, of course, has advantages over Illinois. They were apparent on a recent evening, as customers at Lulu’s on Waikiki sipped mai tais while watching football on television. Steam poured from the mouths of Chicago Bears players in freezing weather, while in Hawaii the sunset was framed by palm trees.
Still, even promoters of Obama tourism here admit that Chicago is better positioned to take advantage of the Obama brand. The future president spends much more time at his home than in Hawaii, and his roots are fresher in the Windy City.
Tours that offer Obama stops here have had limited success so far. Those who live in the apartment building in the Makiki neighborhood where he was partly raised and where his grandmother recently died say tour buses stop on occasion, but visitors typically do not get out.
What will happen to the vacant apartment on the 10th floor remains unknown. Residents in the building say it would be impractical to convert it to some kind of boyhood museum because of the hassles such a move would create for them.
A few blocks away, at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop where Obama worked as a teen, people periodically stop to take a look and order a cone. People also sometimes walk by the private Punahou High School he attended.
One reason Obama tourism could struggle here is that there are just too many other activities and attractions, including the nearly perfect weather. The many international visitors seem more interested in shopping and dining than Obama history.
Concierge desks at Honolulu hotels say few guests ask how to find Obama-related locations.
Still, entrepreneurs are trying.
A Web site called Obama’s Hawaii neighborhood provides links for books about his Hawaiian upbringing and tour maps that highlight places where he lived, played and worked.
Monahan, the tourism bureau executive, said Obama’s visit offers a boost to the state because it reminds people of the destination and also that his steadiness is at least partially shaped by a Hawaiian upbringing that stresses mellowness, peacefulness and acceptance of diverse cultures.
Obama has said he plans to keep a strong connection with Chicago after moving to the White House. “My Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago,” he said in a recent Tribune interview, noting he hopes to return from Washington every six weeks or two months.
With Hawaii being at least a 10-hour flight from Washington, it seems unlikely that he will return here much more than for his annual Christmas vacation.