The Obama Foundation and the Barack Obama Presidential Library

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George Bush Library

September 15, 2014; Wall Street Journal

Every president lately seems to leave office with a major emphasis on an eponymous presidential library. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Barack Obama Foundation has been soliciting potential sites and institutions that would host the Obama presidential library. Four appear to be on the shortlist, including two from Chicago—the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both Barack and Michelle Obama have very strong ties to Chicago, going back to the president’s community organizing work and his later service as a University of Chicago law professor and Ms. Obama’s role as the director of the Chicago office of Public Allies and later service as an administrator at the University of Chicago Hospital.

The two sites outside of Chicago on the shortlist are Columbia University and the University of Hawaii. President Obama is linked to both: Columbia is where he did his undergraduate work and Hawaii is where he was born. Full proposals are due from the finalists by December, presumably in accord with the issues and criteria outlined in this Request for Proposal

Because President Obama is still the serving president, his presidential library hasn’t gotten much attention compared to the Clinton and Bush libraries. The foundation’s board is chaired by Martin Nesbitt, the founder of a Chicago-based airport-parking firm as well as of a hedge fund called the Vistria Group and a former vice president of the Pritzker Realty Group. Nesbitt’s partner in the parking firm, the Parking Spot, was Penny Pritzker, the Chicago real estate investor who now serves the Obama administration as Secretary of Commerce. The immensely wealthy Pritzker was one of the top campaign bundlers for the two Obama presidential campaigns, and Nesbitt himself was campaign treasurer of the 2008 campaign.

The executive director of the foundation (listed as “acting executive director” on the library RFP) is Robbin Cohen (no relationship to the Cohen who writes for Nonprofit Quarterly). Robbin Cohen was president of the Pritzker Realty Group and also ran the Cohen Investment Group, which developed apartment buildings in Chicago

As it stands now, the Obama Foundation and its presidential library planning effort look like subsidiaries of the Pritzker business empire. That shouldn’t be surprising. Presidential libraries generally start as enterprises convened and supported by key political supporters. However, we can imagine the possibility that the “acting” before Robbin Cohen’s formal title suggests that the Obama Foundation has yet to fully establish itself with a formal staffing structure. For example, the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, based in College Station, Texas, has 34 staff people according to its GuideStar profile. The George W. Bush Foundation, located in Dallas, has 10 employees. The William J. Clinton Foundation, recently renamed to include Hillary and Chelsea in its formal name, reports 275 employees on its GuideStar profile.

It is all but assured that as the Obama Foundation makes progress on selecting a site for the presidential library, it will initiate major fundraising efforts and probably programmatic initiatives along the lines of President Obama’s three immediate White House predecessors. Assume that the current acting executive director eventually returns to the world of real estate development. The scrum among acolytes of President Obama to become the permanent executive director will be something to behold.—Rick Cohen