JAKARTA, Indonesia — As Barack Obama’s presidency nears its end, Indonesians still speak with pride of the childhood years he spent in their country, though much of the enthusiasm has faded along with the impossibly high expectations of what the first African-American president would achieve.
A fan club, books, a statue, a cafe and even a movie were all part of the mania for Obama in the world’s most populous Muslim nation after he was elected president in 2008. Many Indonesians believed he would change the world and their country, with its deep-seated problems of poverty, corruption and communal conflict.
Obama is still known here by his childhood nickname Barry and as the “Menteng Kid,” a reference to the upscale Jakarta neighborhood where he lived with his mother and Indonesian stepfather from ages 6 to 10.
“We had great expectations about him that were not realized,” said Sonni Gondokusumo, who was one of Obama’s classmates at Menteng 01 elementary school and a neighbor, and is now a lawyer in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.
Obama is set to travel to Asia for the last time as president, visiting China for a Group of 20 meeting and Laos for a regional summit, but not Indonesia. His first of two visits to the country as president was in 2010, taking Obama-mania to new heights that included an Indonesian lookalike becoming a national celebrity.
Gondokusumo fondly recalled how a young Obama played at his house and joined him in Muslim prayers wearing a traditional Indonesian sarong that kept falling off, causing much laughter.
“Initially, we expected Barry will make a difference,” Gondokusumo said. “To be honest, there is no significant contribution to this country.”
Widiyanto Cahyono, another of Obama’s former classmates, nodded in agreement.
He said he initially had believed that Obama’s emotional connection to Islam through childhood friends and a Muslim stepfather would lead to a world of greater tolerance. But now he realizes he had naively projected all his hopes onto Obama.
“Obama has a better understanding of Islam and his religious tolerance is genuine,” said Cahyono, who sat next to Obama in fourth grade. “But it is a pity nothing has changed,” he added, pointing to American policy in the Middle East.
He recalled Obama attending Islamic study class at the Menteng school, but said that instead of listening to the teacher, the future president acted cool by doodling a superhero in his notebook.
Even though the sky-high hopes for what Obama would achieve have faded, there is still a sense of connection in Indonesia to an important individual who helped shaped the world in the formative years of the 21st century.
“With Obama, there’s a sense of pride,” Cahyono said. “He is very special for us.”
A statue of Obama as a child now stands outside the Menteng school, intended as an enduring reminder of the school’s one-time pupil. Back in 2008, students watched the U.S. election results on television and erupted into cheers when they learned Obama was headed to the White House.
Eight years later, students chatter enthusiastically about the pride they take in attending the school where Obama once studied.
Nine-year-old Mentari Malarangeng, a third-grade student, said Obama is her idol. “I heard from my grandmother that Obama was a good student, loud and confident when he talked,” she said.
Her classmate Abdilah Kurdi said the school became famous because of Obama and gets many visitors who want to see where he sat. “I want to be a president like him,” he said. “I’m so proud of him.”
The school’s principal, Edi Kusyanto, said about 40 to 60 mainly foreign tourists visit the school every month.
A picture of an adult Obama standing beside an American flag is displayed prominently in his former third-grade classroom, with current students pointing to a desk in the next-to-last row as Obama’s. Two big photos of the president adorn the school’s lobby.
Kusyanto said the statue of a young Obama, erected in 2010, is a permanent fixture, because he is part of the school’s history.
“The statue inspires and motivates the children every day,” said Kusyanto, who has high hopes that Obama will visit the school after his presidency ends.
“He tried,” Kusyanto said when asked of Obama’s legacy. “Unlike his predecessor’s legacy of war in Iraq, Obama tried to change the world to be a better place.”