View From the Islands: Hawaii on Obama

View From the Islands: Hawaii on Obama

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the media beamed images of enthusiastic Hawaii residents waving “Obama” signs in support of one of their own – a local hapa kid who graduated from the prestigious Punahou School and went on to run for president.

Since taking office, whenever the Obama ohana (ohana means family in Hawaiian) returns to the islands, locals throng parks and beaches hoping to spot the commander in chief in a pair of rubber slippahs or eating shave ice.

There’s no doubt Obama is popular in his home state, and despite having a Republican governor since 2002, Hawaii continues to vote staunchly Democratic. In 2008, Obama swept 72 percent of the vote over McCain’s 27 percent. During their respective elections Kerry, Gore and Clinton also beat their Republican opponents.

Yet, behind the sunny images of Obama body surfing or bedecked in a flower lei, many Hawaii liberals are despondent by what they perceive as a gaping discrepancy between Obama’s message of hope and change and his current policies.

2010 is an important political year in Hawaii. In February, Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D), who represented Hawaii’s first Congressional district for nearly two decades, resigned to pursue his gubernatorial campaign. In this heavily Democratic state, Hawaii’s two-term Republican governor (the first in four decades), Linda Lingle, is coming to the end of her second term.

Abercrombie’s early departure leaves a vacant seat beside Hawaii’s only other House member Mazie Hirono (D), and Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka. Inouye, holding public office continuously since 1954, is Congress’s second-most senior senator after Robert Byrd. This November, Inouye faces re-election for what would be his ninth consecutive term in the Senate. In most quarters, his victory is a foregone conclusion baring a surprise challenge from outgoing Governor Lingle.

In such a strong Democratic state, it’s no surprise that, despite 14 months of tumult and rancor over domestic and international issues, Obama is still very popular in the islands.

Under Obama, troop levels have tripled and military deaths doubled in Afghanistan, Iraq is still occupied and there has been a major expansion of predator drone attacks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In a 2009 report, a UN special rapporteur suggested the drone attacks may actually violate international law, yet many Hawaii Democrats are upbeat and loathe to criticize the president.

This is certainly true of the Young Democrats of Hawaii (YDHI)’s Vice President Francis Choe, who said enthusiasm for Obama is even stronger after the health care vote in March.

Choe spoke glowingly about Obama, encouraged by his willingness to “cooperate on a global scale” and said he was “delighted” with the president being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In response to Obama’s announcement to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan just days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Choe called the news “bittersweet.” He said YDHI stands behind Obama’s Afghanistan decisions and is “hopeful and supportive.”

Another unwavering Obama supporter is Brian Schatz, until recently chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. Schatz left that post in January to launch his campaign for lieutenant governor. He said “tremendous progress” has been made under Obama.

“If you told me three years ago that in the first year we would stave off a global financial crisis, right the direction of our foreign policy, begin winding down war in Iraq and pass healthcare reform, I would have been thrilled,” said Schatz.

Asked about Obama supporters and progressives who feel a sense of betrayal, Schatz “disagrees strongly.” “I think there are always going to be members of the Democratic Party who would like it if the president were more dovish. To be fair to him, that’s not how he characterized himself during the campaign. He [is] a practical left-of-center mainstream American politician,” Schatz saids.

In 2006, Hawaii Democratic Congressman Ed Case (2002-2007) declined to run for re-election so he could attempt to unseat Sen. Daniel Akaka. Case lost the primary, but is again running for Congress, this time to take Abercrombie’s vacant seat in the House.

Like Schatz, Case sees little sense of betrayal from Obama supporters. “I think Obama is supported in his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan by the great majority of American voters of all parties. I acknowledge and accept that on the edges of both parties that you will find people that believe passionately that he is doing the wrong thing, but I think if you asked ten Americans ‘how’s Obama doing in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ you’d probably get to about eight that in one way, shape, or form supported his decisions there.”

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey (March 19-21, 2010), approval of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan was 55 percent (42 percent disapproval), with 49 percent of those surveyed opposing the US war in Afghanistan versus 48 percent in favor.

“I think Obama has a very moderate and balanced foreign policy,” Case said. “If you are a far-right wing hawk or a far-left dove you are probably going to find disappointment in his policies, but I believe that’s a distinct minority in the political spectrum of our country.”

When asked if he thinks Obama’s foreign policy is consistent with the Hawaii Democratic Party platform, which calls for supporting a “fair and just foreign policy that promotes peace,” Case said, “I believe his policies do, in fact, implement our platform.”

One of Case’s Democratic opponents (there are five Democrats, five Republicans and four nonpartisan candidates running for the winner-take-all special Congressional election on May 22) is the Rev. Vinny Browne. Reverend Browne, a former TBTA law enforcement officer from New York and wedding officiant, moved to Hawaii in 2005, and hopes to be its next Democratic member of Congress.

Unlike some Hawaii Democrats running for office, Browne acknowledges that Obama’s war policies are likely to alienate many of those who supported him in 2008.

“My personal opinion is I would like to see Obama moving in the opposite direction on [Afghanistan],” Browne said. “At this point in time, I don’t think Obama has lived up to his promise [as a leader], but the ability and potential is there and I like to remain optimistic.”

Mirroring praise from Democrats, Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, the leading Republican candidate for Abercrombie’s seat in the House, expressed respect for Obama. Like the president, Djou graduated from top ranking Punahou School in Honolulu in the same class as Obama’s sister.

In 2008, Djou was campaign co-chair for Rudi Giuliani but, like many in Hawaii, he has admiration for Obama.

He does, however, criticize the president for “governing to his base instead of the center,” and, in Djou’s words, for being more partisan than promised. “Obama has shown a propensity to govern in the same fashion as Bush, swapping out Karl Rove for Rahm Emanuel,” Djou said.

Djou is especially critical of Obama’s handling of the economy (“on fiscal responsibility, I’d give him a ‘D'”), but when it comes to foreign policy, in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republican candidate raised the “grade” to a “B,” saying, “I do think the president has taken the right approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama administration polices today look very different from Sen. Obama policy calls during the campaign.”

“[I am] pleased with the implementation of his national security policies largely because President Obama is ignoring the advice of Senator Obama,” Djou said.

Not all Obama supporters are as enthusiastic about his policies, especially with respect to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Michael A. Ceurvorst is a retired career diplomat who has worked at the Pentagon, the Senate and within the executive branch. Ceurvorst, who was most recently international chair of Democrats Abroad, decided to support Obama very early in the ’08 campaign. He felt that if Obama lived up to his rhetoric and sense of values, he could do more “in his first two hours than many billions of dollars of aid could ever do.” Today, Ceurvorst grows tropical hardwoods on the island of Kauai, but in 2008 he campaigned for Obama, including going door-to-door in blizzard conditions in Iowa.

Ceurvorst still supports Obama, but conceded, “I laughed cynically when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded. I was going to agree with [Obama] when he said he didn’t think he deserved it but Obama needs to get out of the moment and stop thinking whether or not he deserved it and consider whether it will advance America’s interest.”

One Obama policy Ceurvorst is particularly critical of is the dramatically expanded use of predator drones that have been blamed for killing civilians (by one estimate one-third of all killed) that includes young children, women and even entire wedding parties in the remote Af-Pak border region. With regards to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, he said there are better means to establish security than the employment of more (civilian) contractors than armed combatants.

Ceurvorst has protested outside the Capitol and vows he will continue to do so because he believes “these wars are wrongful” and “the whole concept of a ‘War on Terror’ is erroneous.”

He said, “I have not backed off supporting Obama, but I am quite willing to criticize him and I know from my half a dozen interactions with him that he is comfortable with being criticized honestly.”

On Obama’s renewal of the Patriot Act, refusal to pursue those who authorized torture in the Bush administration, or failure to act more forcefully in protecting Americans against surveillance and, especially the failure to close Guantanamo, Ceurvorst said he is “disappointed to the point of personal hurt.”

Still, he “definitely disagrees” with the suggestion that Obama is a “kinder, gentler Bush.” Instead, he believes Obama is “laying the groundwork, bringing many people in to the same reference and slowly shifting the narrative that is essential for making change stick in America.”

Bart Dame, a leading member of Progressive Democrats of Hawaii and member of the State Central Committee, gravitated toward Obama during the 2008 campaign only after Kucinich and Edwards dropped out. He saids he didn’t have illusions, but is nonetheless disappointed in Obama.

“I was hopeful because the language he was using seemed to reflect a more sophisticated and enlightened world view. That, with the reality of mixed heritage and being a constitutional lawyer and community organizer, led me to expect more progressive policies,” Dame said.

Instead, he sees one Bush policy after another being perpetuated. From Obama’s call for more nuclear power, continuing No Child Left Behind and pushing for charter schools, Dame is dismayed, saying, “Obama seems to be more concerned about Goldman Sachs than people losing jobs and homes.”

Dame said that having voted for Obama after eight years of Bush, many who hoped to effect change through elections now see business as usual, which undermines their enthusiasm.

“I fear a lot of people in Hawaii and nation wide may be demoralized for having had illusions in the first place. Dame points to people in their twenties, whom he calls “post-political” and who live “moral, decent lives with a small foot print,” but are skeptical that elections can make a difference. “A lot of these people developed hope for Obama that is being starved and skepticism about electoral politics has been strengthened.”

Disillusionment with Obama however, does not necessarily translate to a loss for Democrats in Hawaii, Dame said. In particular, Senator Inouye is so rock-solid, it appears very unlikely there will be anything but “Ds” next to Hawaii in Congress any time soon.

Dame is convinced of the importance of remaining engaged in electoral politics and staying true to progressive ideals at a time when Democrats are nominally in charge of the government. “It was so easy when we had Bush as a clear-cut enemy to rail against the sate. What is difficult is how to figure the proper balance of alliance and confrontation with the Democrats. That is more nuanced than either allowing ourselves to be totally co-opted or throwing ourselves into oppositional mode,” Dame said.

This sense of conflict in Hawaii – between pride and support for the first Hawaii-born president, and what many see as positive Hawaiian values reflected in Obama’s demeanor – and the ambivalence of those who say Obama is proving not to be the change they were hoping for, isn’t expected to significantly loosen the hold Democrats have on the Aloha State.

But if Hawaii’s big daddy Democrat Dan Inouye were to unexpectedly retire (he’ll turn 86 in September), or if Abercrombie’s Congressional seat or the governorship went to a Republican, the reverberations across the Islands would be seismic, certainly for its politics and its military-based economy, and perhaps also for its best known politician who now lives on the Mainland.

Just how much Aloha the people of Hawaii retain for Obama and his Democratic ohana will become clearer after May’s special election and again in November.