President Barack Obama has worked to avoid racial politics during much of his presidency. Now, the structure promoting his legacy is at risk of getting caught up in them.
A debate is brewing over the site of an Obama presidential library, one that primarily pits the leafy academic setting of the University of Chicago against the hardscrabble streets of the rest of the city’s South Side.
“The U. of C. gets everything it wants,” said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council. “It thinks it’s entitled.” The competing neighborhood of Bronzeville, with its jazz and blues tradition, is the best choice, “if this president is not an elitist and plutocratic himself -- and we are still debating that question,” he said.
The 44th president today will have an opportunity to get informed advice as he joins the four other living U.S. chief executives at the dedication of George W. Bush’s Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. Bush raised more than $500 million for the library and an institute at Southern Methodist University that includes a 226,000-square-foot (20,996-square-meter) building and 15-acre (6-hectare) park.
In addition to Obama, Bush’s event will be attended by former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, his father. The library will house documents and other historic items; the institute will promote research on education, women’s rights and spreading democracy.
Obama, 51, and the younger Bush, 66, haven’t had many public encounters since the Texan left office and the president, in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, criticized his predecessor for the nation’s economic woes, an ill-conceived Iraq war, and budget deficits.
Still, they have avoided public displays of personal animosity. In an NBC interview aired yesterday, Obama praised Bush and his team for help during the transition. “I always had a good, friendly relationship with him,” Obama said.
Conversely, Bush has refrained from second-guessing the current administration and kept a low-profile in the last two presidential campaigns. He announced his endorsement of the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee by telling an ABC News reporter, “I’m for Mitt Romney,” as the doors to an elevator shut.
Other contenders in the tug-of-war for an Obama library include Chicago’s downtown area, which would situate it around shops and other attractions, and Hawaii’s Honolulu, where Obama was born and spent much of his youth.
The factions are lobbying for their preferred locations because of the millions in economic development that would follow. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum’s opening in Little Rock in 2004 was followed by office buildings, hotels and restaurants.
“You’re talking about jobs and probably hotels around the location and many tour buses, receptions at the library,” said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “It should be located where it has the biggest economic impact and where it is most convenient for the visitor.”
A budding institute of politics led by Obama strategist David Axelrod on the University of Chicago’s campus could mark the start of a growing presence, should the president also locate his library there.
Washington Park, which borders the university, is among the top-mentioned sites. Areas to the west and south are some of Chicago’s most impoverished and the park provides something of a buffer for the campus, which for decades has had a sometimes tense relationship with neighborhoods around it.
Lucas and his group envision an Obama library at the site of a now-closed hospital, located 20 blocks north of the university’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
To Lucas and other South Side residents, Obama’s decision will provide the final measurement of how much the first U.S. black president is willing to do for those in most need in his hometown. Lucas is organizing a petition urging Obama to place his library in Bronzeville.
“The U of C represents power; putting it in the community, would represent the people,” said Leonard McGee, president of the Bronzeville Alliance, another group that promotes the neighborhood and its residents.
Obama, he noted, “worked in communities, not big institutions, when he started out” in Chicago.
Lucas, McGee and others want an Obama library to be part of a re-creation of a “Black Metropolis” of the 1940s and 1950s, when Bronzeville was a bustling center for the surrounding community. The hospital site was at one time slated to be part of an Olympic Village, had the city been named as host of 2016 summer games. It lost out to Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro.
A casino, entertainment complex, convention hotel and presidential library were floated as possible anchor tenants for a redevelopment plan for the site earlier this month by the architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill at a community meeting at West Point Missionary Baptist Church in Bronzeville.
The Chicago debate echoes one heard nationally about whether Obama has done enough to help blacks, whose unemployment rate in March was 13.3 percent, compared to 7.6 percent for the U.S. as a whole. When Obama took office in January 2009, the jobless rate for blacks was 12.6 percent and the national average was 7.6 percent.
With so many Obama ties to the University of Chicago, Lucas said the deck seems stacked against his efforts.
Besides Axelrod, other Obama allies now based at the university include former senior economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett is a former member of the school’s board of trustees, and two top fundraisers for Obama’s presidential campaigns sit on the panel: John Rogers, chairman of Ariel Investments LLC, and James Crown, president of Henry Crown & Co.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, sends his children to the university’s private Lab School. The family of Penny Pritzker, Obama’s 2008 national finance chairwoman and a potential candidate to serve as his next commerce secretary, also has numerous ties to the school.
Obama taught constitutional law at the university from 1992 to 2004, his Kenwood neighborhood home is within walking distance of the campus, and his two daughters attended the Lab School before the family moved to Washington. First lady Michelle Obama also once was a vice president at the university’s medical center.
Susan Sher, a former White House adviser, is now an executive vice president at the university and has been asked by the White House to survey other presidential libraries and how they raised money.
As early as 2009, the university approached White House officials about the possibility of a library there, Bloomberg News reported at the time.
“The University of Chicago was fortunate to have President Obama on its Law School faculty for 12 years, and to benefit from Mrs. Obama’s leadership in several senior administrative roles,” university spokesman Jeremy Manier said in a statement this week. “It is premature to discuss a presidential library.”
Another potential Chicago location is a former U.S. Steel Corp (X). plant southeast of downtown along Lake Michigan that developers plan to turn into a residential and retail destination. The Chicago Lakeside Development project has the support of another Obama fundraiser, James Reynolds, chief executive officer of Loop Capital Markets LLC.
Les Coney, an executive vice president at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial and a longtime Obama fundraiser, said he finds the U.S. Steel (X) location intriguing.
“That’s wide open and that could transform that whole community and section of the city,” he said. “For me, something like that would be very exciting.”
The development site, larger than Chicago’s Loop business district, is already billing itself as a future “city within a city” and potential home of an “Obama Presidential Library.”
Coney said Chicago donors would rally behind the library project, wherever it’s located. “This is the city where Barack had his first donors to launch his campaign,” he said. “I feel very confident that those same folks will step up to the plate.”
Fundraising for the library will be easier than for a campaign because no federal limitations will be imposed and both Democrats and some Republicans will donate, Coney said.
Presidential libraries are built with private money before being turned over to the National Archives for operation. Their cost has grown over the years, reflecting inflation and the increasing grandeur of their designs.
Obama has said little about his library plans.
“Honolulu is my birthplace,” he said during a February interview with Honolulu TV station KITV. “It’s the place where I grew up, and I’ve got so many friends and fond memories, and it helped to shape me, so I’d like to find a way that after my presidency that connection remains, but I live in Chicago now and that’s where I grew up professionally. So, it is a tough choice, but it’s not one that I’ve made up yet.”
Honolulu seeks at least a part of projects devoted to Obama’s legacy.
“We are prepared to host whatever institution the president might want to put in Hawaii, including the main library,” said Robert Perkinson, a University of Hawaii professor who is director of the Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative.
The organization, which has a website and has raised about $50,000 for travel and other costs, says it has tentatively identified an oceanfront site. The location is near a “great body surfing break,” Perkinson said, noting one of the president’s preferred recreational activities.
Hawaii’s 7 million annual visitors offer a constant stream of potential Obama library visitors, he said, and “when it rains, they are looking for something other to do than go to the beach.”
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