In what has become a Christmas Day tradition, President Barack Obama shared holiday cheer Tuesday with members of the military and their families at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
But the president plans to head back to Washington tonight, cutting short his stay in hopes of reaching a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Obama is scheduled to leave Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam at 10 p.m., the White House said. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha will remain in the islands at their rented Kailua beach house, likely through the new year.
The president and first lady spent more than an hour Tuesday afternoon at a dining hall on the Kaneohe base where about 450 Marines and their families had assembled for a Christmas meal.
They arrived at about 4:15 p.m. to applause from the crowd.
"We want to say Merry Christmas to everybody," Obama told the diners. "This looks like it was a nice rather than naughty crowd, so I'm sure Santa treated you well."
The president and first lady gave out hugs and pats on the back, posed for photos and thanked the Marines for their service.
"One of our favorite things is always coming to the base on Christmas Day and having a chance just to meet you, those of you who have families here, and to say thank you for the extraordinary work and service that you guys do each and every day," Obama told the crowd.
The president's appearance, though expected, left many giddy.
"I have butterflies and chills!" said Marine Sgt. Ebony Bird, 28.
Bird said she came to the dining hall to meet the president -- and to get a nice meal. "That was my goal for tonight," she said, laughing.
Sgt. Juan Balderas, 25, brought his family in hopes of catching a glimpse of the president. They weren't disappointed. "It was exciting," he said.
He said his 2-year-old daughter, Katherine, started clapping with the crowd when Obama entered the hall.
The president has thanked troops at the Marine Corps base on Christmas Day for the last several years.
On Tuesday he noted that service members and their families make singular sacrifices.
"We know that it's not easy," he said. "But what we also want you to know is that you have the entire country behind you and that all of us understand that we would be nowhere without the extraordinary service that you guys provide."
Obama's holiday visits have become something of a tradition for some service members, too.
Cpl. Richard Smith, 22, has seen the president on three Christmases at the Marine base.
"I think it's nice he comes by," Smith said. "There's a lot of us who don't have anyone here."
The Musch family was all smiles after meeting the president and first lady.
Chief Warrant Officer James Musch said that was a "very big part" of the family's decision to come.
His wife, Shannon Roberts-Musch, called the couple "personable" and kind.
"Just very friendly," she said.
The visit capped a quiet Christmas Day for the Obamas.
The family gathered around 8 a.m. to open gifts, then ate breakfast and sang carols, according to a media pool report.
Tuesday evening the first family and friends ate dinner at home.
The Obamas arrived in Hawaii on Saturday for their vacation.
Automatic budget cuts and tax increases are set to begin in January, and so far, the president and congressional Republicans have been unable to reach agreement on any alternatives.
Members of Congress return to work Thursday, and Obama will be there as well.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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