Obama’s Vacation: A Test for Hawaii’s Governor?


When President-elect Barack Obama met with governors from around the country in Philadelphia earlier this month, almost all of them beat a path to the Independence Hall gathering.

One who did not was Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, the state where Mr. Obama was born, spent part of his childhood and is visiting for the third time since August this week. At the time, her absence instantly became the subject of withering criticism in the local press, forcing her to deflect accusations that she snubbed the president-elect.

Now, as Mr. Obama, his family and an entourage of close friends spend the rest of the week on Oahu, some have suggested the pressure is on Governor Lingle to make amends for the perceived slight.

But plans for a meeting between the governor and Mr. Obama or a member of his transition staff — an idea that the governor floated a few weeks ago — have not been formalized, according to Ms. Lingle’s press secretary, Russell Pang.

Mr. Pang also said that if the governor doesn’t have a face-to-face chat with Mr. Obama during his stay, she intends to do so when she visits Washington for the National Governor’s Association meeting in February. Ms. Lingle has said that she’s been in touch with Valerie Jarrett, an aide to Mr. Obama, about setting up a time to sit down with the new president during her trip.

Still, Chuck Freedman, a spokesman for the Hawaii Democratic Party, suggested that perhaps this week would be a good time for a “tiki lounge détente” between the governor and President-elect Obama. Ms. Lingle’s decision to skip the session in Philadelphia was “a tactical error,” he said. “Maybe she could have avoided it maybe she couldn’t have.”

But in early December, Ms. Lingle found herself contending with a tidal wave of criticism leveled in newspaper editorials and by Democrats. Her communications chief, Lenny Klompus, said in column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that remaining in Hawaii “was not intended as a snub or to be disrespectful in any way” to Mr. Obama. Citing Hawaii’s distance from the East Coast, Mr. Klompus wrote, “the trip would have entailed at least three full days in order for the governor to attend an 85-minute meeting.”

And in her own public statements on the matter, Governor Lingle emphasized that she was deeply enmeshed in negotiations to deal with Hawaii’s $1.1 billion budget shortfall.

But concerns at the statehouse in Honolulu did not stop her from taking a series of trips to the mainland to campaign on behalf of Senator John McCain during the summer and fall. (Of course, Ms. Lingle was just one of dozens of governors and members of Congress who left their states to campaign for one of the presidential candidates.)

After the Philadelphia meeting Ms. Lingle received a letter from Mr. Obama — addressed “Dear Linda” — that began: “I know that you were unable to attend the meeting on Tuesday, but I am reaching out to make sure that you are engaged.” In his letter Mr. Obama requested her input on infrastructure issues and state and federal partnerships. The governor replied with her suggestions and good wishes.

But with the clock ticking on Mr. Obama’s vacation, those words may be the only ones the two politicians exchange before Mr. Obama is sworn in and becomes the country’s first Hawaiian-born president.

And speaking of the future president’s connections to the Aloha State — Governor Lingle didn’t exactly play them up while campaigning for Mr. McCain, but the state’s convention and tourism bureau is only too happy to point them out now.