The Administration

What will be in Obama’s Presidential Library

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When Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government in 1939 and raised funds to house them in a library and museum, little did he know he would be setting in motion a cottage industry of legacy-burnishing shrines to former U.S. Presidents one scholar has characterized as “America’s Pyramids.”

What began as a modest, fieldstone, colonial-style manor house on Roosevelt’s beloved estate in Hyde Park, has given way to 13 outsized presidential libraries in an array of architectural styles of dubious distinction: JFK’s I.M. Pei-designed assemblage of massive, children’s building blocks of glass, steel and precast concrete; Bill Clinton’s sleek, ground-hugging skyscraper thrusting above the Arkansas River; LBJ’s 134,695 square foot, ten-story, travertine megalith; Gerald Ford’s nondescript, suburban car dealership look-alike. . . . From such a motley baker’s dozen of American presidents’ monuments to themselves, one can only wonder what the fourteenth—the Obama Presidential Center—will look like, and more important, what story it will tell.

So far we know several things: the Barack Obama Foundation was formed in 2014 to oversee the design and construction of the Obama Presidential Center—including a library, a museum, and additional spaces for programs and initiatives—to focus on Obama’s legacy and “carry on that great, unfinished project of renewal and global progress.” 

We also know the Obama Presidential Center will be “bringing it home” to Chicago—specifically Jackson Park on the city’s South Side—where young Barack Obama railed as a community organizer; where “I really became a man . . . where I met my wife . . . where my children were born”; and where one of Michelle Obama’s grandfathers was nicknamed “South Side.”

And we know two architectural teams will design the OPC, who according to the Chicago Tribune will face a unique challenge: “Shape the first presidential library to be built in a predominantly African-American urban neighborhood sorely in need of an economic boost.”

To make all this happen, the Foundation will have to raise money, a lot of money. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum cost $250 million (they raised $500 million) and is the most expensive of all the presidential libraries. Bill Clinton’s library cost $165 million, with $10 million coming in fealty from the Saudis. The Obama Presidential Center is expected to cost $500 million and the Foundation will need to raise close to $1 billion. Though presidential libraries are built with private funds, they are operated and managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), using federal tax dollars. By the time the OPC is dedicated in 2021, annual operating costs for all 14 presidential libraries will approach $100 million—just to keep the doors open.

No matter what the final monument to Barack Obama looks like, the more interesting question is what will be in it. How will the Obama presidency be portrayed? Since presidential foundations are products of their funding sources and predominantly arms of the president’s political party, they control the content. It’s a fair bet that the Obama Presidential Center will be a heady mélange of hagiographic biography, refurbished campaign commercials, cultish left-wing bric-a-brac, and requisite paeans to perceived achievements and ballyhooed pseudo-events—all touting Barack Obama as a “transformative” president.

No doubt there will be soaring interactive displays touting his financial stimulus, Obamacare, the auto bailout, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. But will any of the sizzle peer under the hood? Will they report the stimulus failed to create jobs or engender the promised recovery? Will they admit Obamacare was built on a series of lies, ever-increasing premiums and deductibles, and spawned a defection of large insurers to drop out of government health markets? Will they reveal Obama bailed out General Motors but let Detroit die? Dare they add that the Iran Nuclear Deal represents a ticking time bomb and Obama has, literally, paid for the impending explosion? Yes, Seal Team 6 did kill Osama Bin Laden.

An even more troublesome consideration for the Foundation was raised by Senator John Thune, who pointed out that “the vast majority of the items that make up the president’s ‘legacy’—including the national energy tax, executive amnesty, and the flawed Iran deal—are not actual laws.” Consequently, Obama’s choosing to bypass Congress (and the will of the American people) by imposing regulations, executive actions, and executive agreements could backfire, and many of these rules could be rescinded by a Republican administration. 

Perhaps Obama’s single most noteworthy accomplishment will be his election itself. History will record two immutable facts: Barack Obama was the first African-American President of the United States and the first not born on the American continent (Obama was born in Hawaii).

Building on this, especially with a billion dollars to play with, there is the opportunity for the Foundation to do the right thing and present the Obama presidency as a whole, warts included. Recently, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library underwent a $15 million renovation, specifically including a new, unflinching look at Watergate. The BOF can take the high road and avoid erecting another presidential theme park dedicated “to the wonder of me.”

Instead of trying to polish his legacy at the eleventh hour with hundreds of criminal pardons, a meaningless Cuba reset, and a JFK-like announcement of manned trips to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, Mr. Obama can stand in the light of his own presidency and face the scrutiny of history head on. He was not a transformative president. He did not enunciate a public policy. He did not forge any political coalitions. He was a divider not a uniter. And perhaps most bittersweet, he allowed the brief flame of hope and change to flicker and die into an animus for government and the rule of law, and fostered a growing hostility between the races. There is much to atone for.

In a rare moment of clarity Obama has said as much himself: “One of my few regrets is my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics.” 

Somehow lost in in all this is Roosevelt’s original belief that Presidential papers are a seminal part of our national heritage and should be made accessible to the public: “To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future.” Ironically, it is this original purpose that has been most compromised, as many of these records will not be available for 100 years or more.

Until then, we’ll have to settle for replicas of the oval office, reproductions of presidential china, acrylic magnets embedded with the Presidential seal, and bronze busts of famous White House pets. 

La Valle is freelance writer in New York.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.





Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Chicago John Thune legacy Michelle Obama Obama Obama administration Presidential library White House

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