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Dec 30, 2014 4:39 PM

For Obama, reunion with pals a link to simpler times

The Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) Since returning to his childhood home this month on vacation, President Barack Obama has spent a good part of most days cloistered with three people whose company puts him at ease. They're not his wife and daughters, who came with him, but a trio of pals whose friendship dates back to Obama's high school days in Hawaii.

The three men Mike Ramos, Bobby Titcomb and Greg Orme are among the few people still in Obama's life who knew him long before he was famous. Although their paths have long since diverged, they've made it a point to gather for frequent reunions, in one of Obama's most visible links to the days when his life was much simpler and his problems more mundane.

On this visit alone, Obama has spent more than 22 hours with the group on the lush golf courses that dot the island of Oahu. When it rained, Obama and his pals went bowling, instead.

And on Tuesday, in what's become a yearly tradition, the men and their families gathered for a luau hosted by Titcomb. With rain drizzling over Oahu, Obama's motorcade whisked Obama across the island to Titcomb's beachside home in Waialua, about an hour outside of Honolulu on the North Shore.

Increasingly, the reunions have become the focal point of Obama's family vacation in his second term as his teenage daughters spend less and less time at their father's side. Once content to join their parents for outings to the aquarium or to get shave ice, Sasha and Malia are now more independent. Since arriving more than a week ago, Obama has been out in public with one of his daughters only once, briefly, during a hike.

What Obama and his companions talk about during their many hours alone is anyone's guess. But the foursome rarely goes more than a few months without reconvening in one arrangement or another. In August, Obama kicked off his 53rd birthday weekend golfing with the three friends in suburban Maryland before heading to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains.

All four were classmates at Punahou School in Honolulu, which Obama has described as "a prestigious prep school, an incubator for island elites." In his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama recalled a high school career that was, for the most part, ordinary "marginal report cards and calls to the principal's office; part-time jobs at the burger chain; acne and driving tests and turbulent desire."

"I'd made my share of friends at school, gone on the occasional awkward date," Obama wrote. "And if I sometimes puzzled over the mysterious realignments of status that took place among my classmates, as some rose and others fell depending on the whims of their bodies or the make of their cars, I took comfort in the knowledge that my own position had steadily improved."

Far less is known about Obama's buddies, of course, than about the president himself. All three live mostly private lives when they're not being photographed with the commander in chief.

Ramos, who graduated from Punahou in 1978, bonded with Obama over their mutual affinity for jazz. He's lived in Colorado, but was listed as a North Carolina resident when in 2012 he attended a state dinner at the White House that Obama held for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Titcomb, who golfed another two days with Obama this month before the others got into town, was a year behind Obama at Punahou. Titcomb has worked as a commercial fisherman and an airline employee, according to the school's alumni magazine. In 2011, he pleaded no contest to soliciting a prostitute, but Obama has stayed fiercely loyal to his childhood friend.

Obama played basketball at Punahou with Orme, who the alumni magazine says is now a building contractor. Aging photos show Obama and Orme decked out in 1970s fashion with their dates before attending a high school prom.

Among U.S. presidents, Obama is not alone in carving out time regularly to reconnect with his roots. Franklin D. Roosevelt made frequent trips back to Hyde Park, N.Y., throwing picnics or barbecues for former neighbors and friends, and George H.W. Bush remained pals with men he served with in World War II.

In the second term, presidents have often sought refuge from the pressure by disappearing into nature to fish or hunt, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. But such solitude has become less and less attainable for presidents in modern times.

"Many people call Obama aloof, and he hasn't made a lot of friends in Washington," Brinkley said. "When you're president, everybody wants something from you and only these types of friends are able to simply want your well-being. They have a different level of affection for you than friends you meet later in life."


Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP


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