By Maeve Reston
10:38 PM EST, December 25, 2013
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, made their customary Christmas visit to greet troops at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, offering thanks and encouragement to some 580 service members before spending the evening at home with friends and family.
The ocean-front Marine base at Kaneohe Bay -- where Obama also works out, plays golf and goes to the beach with his family -- is a five-minute drive from the Obamas’ vacation rental in Kailua.
In a speech at the chow hall, Obama acknowledged the "friends and comrades" who are raising their families on the base while their loved ones serve in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In a three-minute speech before he stepped off the stage to greet Marines individually, Obama noted that he had recently spoken to soldiers in Afghanistan and Bahrain, among other places.
"It was just a sampling of the incredible sacrifice that all of you and your families make every single day," the president said. "Michelle and I know that we would not enjoy the freedoms we do if it weren't for the incredible dedication and professionalism and work that you do. The least we can do is just let you all know we're grateful to you.
"We hope that the mess has done right by you and that the food is pretty good," the president added before wishing the troops a Mele Kalikimaka -- the Hawaiian saying for "Merry Christmas."
The Obamas stayed in for Christmas Eve and much of Christmas Day opening presents and singing Christmas carols, according to a White House aide, before their private Christmas dinner.
White House Chef Sam Kass, who also heads the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, traveled to Hawaii this year, making it easier for the family to entertain at their rental home, which overlooks the turquoise waves of Kailua Bay on the windward side of Oahu.
So far, the Obamas have ventured out for dinner only once: to Morimoto, the upscale sushi restaurant of "Iron Chef" star Masaharu Morimoto, on Sunday after attending the Oregon State-Akron basketball game at the Diamond Head Classic. (Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, coaches Oregon State.)
During his low-key holiday in the state where he grew up, the president has played golf each day, alternating between the court at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kan'eohe Bay and Mid-Pacific Country Club in neighboring Lanikai.
After a weekend of briefings about the attack on U.S. troops in South Sudan and the progress of health insurance enrollments under the Affordable Care Act, the Obamas scaled back their official duties over the holiday.
The Obamas recorded a Christmas message thanking U.S. troops in lieu of a weekly address.
“Today we want all our troops to know that you’re in our thoughts and prayers this holiday season,” Obama said in the video missive. “And here’s the good news: For many of our troops and newest veterans, this might be the first time in years that they’ve been with their families on Christmas. In fact, with the Iraq war over and the transition in Afghanistan, fewer of our men and women in uniform are deployed in harm’s way than in any time in the last decade.”
“And that’s something that we all can be thankful for,” his wife added.
On Christmas Eve, the president made calls to service members stationed around the world, including those who were injured over the weekend during an aborted rescue mission in South Sudan. And Michelle Obama fielded Christmas Eve calls from children across the country to discuss Santa’s whereabouts as he was monitored by the NORAD Tracks Santa program, which was launched in the 1950s after a child called the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado inquiring about Santa’s location.
The program keeps a 25-hour operations center open with 1,200 volunteers fielding calls from children on Christmas Eve. The first lady was one of those volunteers Tuesday, updating a series of young callers on Santa’s movements “at the speed of light” over Egypt and South Sudan, and chatting with them about their bedtimes and their Christmas wishlists.
“What I want for Christmas is the Transformer — whose name is Metroplex,” one child told her.
“That sounds good,” the first lady replied.
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