President Barack Obama unveiled the plans for his Presidential Library on May 4 in Chicago, and it appears the man who made history as the first African American president is set to make another ground breaking move toward his legacy. Obama’s presidential library will say “no thank you” to federal government money.
The 13 other libraries dedicated to presidents dating to Herbert Hoover, are all a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that operates the facilities once they are built.
One of the biggest criticisms of presidential libraries has been that they often are publicly funded monuments used to rewrite the narrative of presidents with flawed records. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon are good examples of that.
In opting out of the system, Obama is turning down his portion of the $65 million in taxpayer money allocated each year to run all of the libraries. No one can argue against that. To be clear, there are other presidential libraries that operate without NARA, but they are dedicated to presidents prior to Hoover’s administration and are supported by independent foundations and universities. Let’s hope it’s a trend that future presidents will follow.
Without the government’s purview, Obama is relieved from establishing a multimillion-dollar endowment that ultimately would have gone back into the federal coffers. Under a new federal requirement passed in 2008, Obama would have been the first president required to have an endowment representing 60% of the cost of the library. His predecessors had a 20% threshold.
With his library estimated to cost upward of $500 million, it potentially frees up lots of money that now can be used for programming and other projects to strengthen the economic viability of the surrounding South Side communities.
While programming for presidential libraries always is largely in the hands of the private foundations charged with raising money for them, savings from the endowment will give him the freedom to spend additional resources on projects tailored specifically toward Chicago. It also means that his presidential center, which has from the start been billed as an economic engine for the entire South Side, likely will be more about substance than show. As an independent library, it can provide a platform from which the former president can continue or expand the work he began as president. Obama clearly understands that.
The library programming could include: job training, violence prevention, leadership programs, community activities and a host of other undertakings that will not only change the physical landscape of neglected communities but also instill a sense of hope and pride in the people who live there.
Obama has the chance to set a new standard for what presidential libraries can do to transform communities. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum succeeded in revitalizing nearby downtown Little Rock, but that pales in comparison to the monumental task of turning around a cluster of mostly poor African American neighborhoods that have suffered from years of disinvestment.
Obama’s status as the first African-American president gives his library unique historical significance, and it likely will become one of the nation’s most popular presidential libraries. Obama won’t have to spend money on gimmicks designed to bolster attendance.