The Obamas may never live in Chicago again.
After leaving the White House, it is entirely likely they will split their time between New York and Hawaii. The chair of the Barack Obama Foundation last week arranged for the purchase of a home in Honolulu, apparently for the Obama family.
The appeal of Hawaii is self-evident, especially after this Chicago winter. And New York is New York, the center of it all. A great base camp for a former president, a citizen of the world.
We get it. And Chicago would understand.
But Chicago would never understand — and never forgive — were the Obamas to choose New York over Chicago for the Obama presidential library. The president would be turning his back on the city that welcomed him into public life, gave him his career and sent him to the White House.
Barack — as some folks here still call him because they knew him when — would risk severing not only physical ties to Chicago, but emotional ties. How sad that would be.
The Obamas are expected to announce their decision on the library’s home soon after Chicago’s April 7 runoff elections. Chicago and New York are in contention, with Hawaii a distant third.
Every presidential library belongs — and actually is — where that president found his footing, where he first made his mark. That’s why Bill Clinton chose Little Rock, why George W. Bush chose Dallas, why Jimmy Carter chose Atlanta. What are Obama’s ties to New York? He lived there for a few years, mostly as a student at Columbia University. The appeal of New York for an Obama presidential library has nothing to do with roots or values or formative years. The appeal of New York is the city’s global reach, the endless tourists and the attractive site Columbia has proposed.
That entirely misses the point of a presidential library. It should nestled in the place a president came from and explore the forces that shaped him.
For both Barack and Michelle Obamas, that place is Chicago. This is where Barack Obama began his career, where he worked as a community organizer, where he first ran for office, where he made all his political connections, where his children were born, where he taught and practiced law, where his wife lived nearly her entire life before moving to the White House, and where he made his fastest friends and allies. The Obamas have surrounded themselves in the White House with Chicagoans, not New Yorkers.
When asked by the Chicago Tribune editorial board last week where he wanted the library to go, Obama himself said, “I hope it goes to Chicago.” But when it was pointed out that he had a say in the matter, he said there were “some entanglements.”
Entanglements, yes. But most of them, fortunately, have now been resolved.
Chicago has two competing bids for the library, one from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the other from the University of Chicago. The U. of C. bid, in part because of the university’s secrecy, has generated great controversy because it includes using parkland. We didn’t like how the university handled that matter but, like many others, came around to supporting the use of parkland. The transfer of land has been approved by the Park District and, as of last Wednesday, the City Council. The only remaining hurdle is a potential lawsuit.
As for the U of C vs. UIC competition, the universities came together last week in a show of unity. At a joint breakfast, they sent the message that bringing the library to Chicago is what matters most, not whether it lands on the South Side or the West Side. They put aside historically rivalries between the South and West sides for the greater good.
“We are one city, first and foremost,” said Carol Adams, the former head of the DuSable Museum who has ties to both U. of C. and UIC. Adams prefers a South Side site, as we do, but says what matters most is to champion Chicago. “Most of us have represented one side of town,” she said, “but at the end we’ll all come together for the sake of it coming to Chicago.”
Another hurdle cleared.
The decision lies in the president’s hands. We hope he takes to heart Adams’ wise words:
“He got there from here,” she said. “He should bring it on home.”