The Obama Center Can Afford More Than $1 Rent
It’s a political ‘institute,’ not a presidential library. So taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for anything...
When Barack Obama announced he would forgo a presidential library, the news was trumpeted as a win for good government. Instead, Mr. Obama would open an official center on Chicago’s South Side, funded entirely with private money. One author at Politico, who called presidential libraries a “scam,” wrote that Mr. Obama “will rip off the band-aid, removing government from what it has no business paying for.”
Now comes news that Illinois taxpayers will put up at least $174 million for roadway and transit reconfigurations needed to accommodate the Obama Center. If you don’t live in Illinois, you may be smirking - but you’ll be footing the bill, too. Eighty percent of such spending is generally reimbursed by the federal government, and Illinois officials confirmed to me that they expect to receive $139 million from Washington if they request it.
All that taxpayer money - and for what? Originally, Chicagoans imagined they’d be getting a true presidential library, akin to those they might have visited for Ronald Reagan in California or John F. Kennedy in Boston. But unlike those libraries, the Obama Center won’t be run by the National Archives and Records Administration. It won’t even house Mr. Obama’s records, artifacts and papers, which will be digitized and available online. Instead the center will be owned and operated by the Obama Foundation.
This wasn’t always the plan. In a 2014 request for proposal, the Obama Foundation said that the planned presidential library “will include an Institute that will enhance the pursuit of the President’s initiatives beyond 2017.” This institute now seems to have taken over the project. As the Chicago Tribune reported in February: “Obama said he envisions his center as a place where young people from around the world can meet each other, get training and prepare to become the next generation of leaders.” No doubt, his definition of “leaders” will be political.
Which raises the question of why the state and city are giving the Obama Center official support. Back when it was still being sold as an official presidential library, the city of Chicago took steps to allow the project to be built in Jackson Park. Under a deal approved by the City Council in May, the Obama Foundation will lease 19.3 acres in perpetuity for $1. A nonprofit group called Protect our Parks has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that this violates state law. The suit calls the Obama Center a “bait and switch,” since the “public purpose” of a presidential library no longer exists.
Then there’s the road and transit money. Last fall WTTW, a Chicago public television station, was reporting skeptically on “preliminary plans” for Illinois to cough up $100 million to “assist” the Obama Center: “How could a public financing proposal fly in a state that is bleeding red ink, especially when the Obamas have promised 100 percent private funding?”
In response, a spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation insisted to WTTW that “construction and maintenance will be funded by private donations, and no taxpayer money will go to the foundation.” That may be true in the narrow sense, but the state’s appropriation for roadway and transit fixes is serious cash. Imagine the cries of corporate welfare if Chicago lured a big company to town with direct infrastructure spending of $174 million.
So why no fuss about ponying up to help the Obama Center? There are two answers:
The first is that Illinois’s machine politicians dropped the appropriation this summer into a 1,246-page budget bill, which was then presented to rank-and-file legislators only hours before the vote.
The second is that after a few Republicans objected to spending state money for the Obama Center, they were told not to fret: Federal reimbursements were on the way. “We were assured by Republican leadership not to worry,” state Rep. Jeanne Ives told me, “since 80% of the cost would be picked up by the federal government.”
If he tried, President Obama could probably raise more than enough private money to forgo sweetheart deals. Does anybody really think the Obama Foundation can’t afford more than $1 rent? Yet Chicago’s loyal Democrats are only too happy to give him the land free, then pour tax money into the road reconfigurations the project requires. “The state’s $174 million investment in infrastructure improvements near the Obama Center,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “is money well spent.” Mr. Emanuel was President Obama’s first chief of staff.
So if you wind up visiting Chicago some years from now, and you spot a tall stone tower teeming with future leaders of the Democratic Party, give yourself a pat on the back. No matter where in America you’re from, your tax money will have helped to make the Obama Center possible.