HONOLULU – President-elect Barack Obama returns to his home state of Hawaii on Saturday for his last family vacation before taking office next month, savoring the respite in an oceanfront estate in one of Oahu’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, will spend the holidays with a small group of close friends at a cluster of privately-owned beachfront mansions on Oahu, the island where the president-elect was born and raised by his grandparents.
Obama has no public events scheduled over the next 12 days. But he will attend a memorial service for his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died just before her grandson was elected the nation’s first black president.
Obama was last in Hawaii in October for an emotional 22-hour trip to visit Dunham, who died two days before the November election at the age of 86. In a private ceremony, the president-elect will pay tribute to the woman he affectionately called “Toot” and whom he has credited with being a steady, constant influence in his life and the cornerstone of his family.
Dunham had lived in Oahu in the same apartment where she and her husband raised Obama. Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is a school teacher in Honolulu, where she lives with her family.
The president-elect might not escape work entirely. Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has invited Obama to meet with her while he is here, according to news reports. Lingle also said she hopes to meet with Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, who is among the handful of friends who will be on the trip.
But mostly the trip will be a time for the president-elect to recharge before moving to Washington, D.C., to face an economic recession, a growing deficit and two wars.
Hawaii has served as a tropical retreat for Obama during his breakneck rise from first-term senator to commander in chief. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote, “Even now, I can retrace the first steps I took as a child and be stunned by the beauty of the islands.”
A Hawaii vacation over Christmas and New Year’s Eve has become a tradition for the Obamas and the families of three of their closest friends, Martin Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard; Eric Whitaker, and Jarrett. Obama contemplated a run for the presidency in Oahu over the holidays in 2006, telling reporters at the time that he would reveal his decision after he returned.
More recently, Obama took a break from the campaign during a trip to Hawaii in August. The Obamas and 17 friends spent about a week in Oahu before Obama accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Obama’s daughters – 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha – will have plenty to look forward to in escaping the frigid Chicago temperatures. Plus, a few days after the vacation, they’ll start their new private school in Washington, Sidwell Friends School.
Obama said last month at a news conference that the girls were busy writing their Christmas lists.
Obama’s transition team has been tight-lipped about the Christmas getaway, declining to offer details about where Obama would stay, what he would do or how he plans to celebrate the holidays.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the Obamas and their friends will be staying in three multi-million dollar mansions in Kailua, which has been rated among the top beaches in the world. Each private home wraps around a lagoon-style swimming pool, with palm trees, grassy lawns and retractable glass walls, the AP reported.
When Obama visited Hawaii in August, he stayed at an $8 million, 12,000-square-foot oceanfront vacation home owned by a Democratic contributor who, along with her husband, has given more than $62,000 to the Democratic party and its presidential candidates in the past eight years.
Obama, however, had rented the house through an agency and didn’t personally know the contributor, Jill Tate Higgins, the general partner of Lakeside Enterprises, a Burbank, Calif., private family investment company listed in property tax records as the owner. That house, too, was in Kailua, though it was unclear if Obama is staying in the same home on this trip.
The Obamas are also keeping the press at a distance, arranging for reporters to stay across the island on Waikiki Beach.
And if his schedule is any clue, Obama will have a relatively low-key New Year’s Eve. He leaves the following day.