Barack Obama hasn’t been the president for nearly two years, but his fame is still spreading — at least when it comes to naming things after him.
The nation’s first African-American former president need not go far around the country these days to find something that carries his name. There’s Barack Obama Way in New Albany Township, Indiana, and Barack Obama Boulevard in Pahokee, Florida. There’s a long list of schools now named for him, like Barack Obama Academy for Academic & Civic Development in Plainfield, New Jersey, and Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.
Obama even has animal species named after him, like placida barackobamai, a sea slug.
We’re probably seeing the “opening salvos” in the Obama naming marathon, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who expects the former president’s name to start showing up in heavily Democratic or predominately African-American communities.
As Obama becomes even more of an elder statesman, his fame could rank right up there with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt and become bipartisan, said Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Texas.
“At the end of the line, 20 or 30 years from now, there will be hundreds of hospitals, schools, bridges and statutes,” in his honor, predicted Brinkley, whose most recent book is, “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.” “He’s going to be one of the four or five most celebrated figures in U.S. history.”
But the renaming process can be drawn out and sometimes isn’t without controversy, as recent naming efforts in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York show.
In Los Angeles, the idea recently surfaced of naming the international airport in Obama’s honor.
The recommendation surfaced from the City Council in West Hollywood, a small but prominent city in the heart of the L.A. metropolis, that recently voted to support the renaming of Los Angeles International Airport for the former president last month.
After all, New York renamed its international airport in honor of President John F. Kennedy and Congress added President Ronald Reagan to the formal name of Washington National Airport.
So when a constituent suggested the notion of Obama airport, West Hollywood Councilmember Lauren Meister said she didn’t hesitate. “I said ‘yeah, sounds like a good idea,” she recalled.
Meister said Obama delivered eight years of a scandal-free presidency and was admired globally, the perfect image for welcoming visitors to sunny southern California.
“Having an airport that (recognizes) the first African-American president, someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize, who got us out of the 2008 economic crisis and gave us affordable health care, should be celebrated,” Meister said.
She said the resolution is being sent to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and could go to the airport commission. A spokeswoman for the airport commission said it had no comment.
If the airport idea doesn’t fly, Obama can still count on L.A. to have done its part. A stretch of Ventura Freeway, which is State Route 134, was renamed in his honor last year. It’s now the President Barack H. Obama Highway.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino, who pushed through the legislation to make the designation, said Obama would certainly be familiar with the route, having commuted on it when he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles starting in the late 1970s.
“It’s the actual stretch of freeway he used,” Portantino said. “There is a proud connection. His early political career was inspired by his days here.”
Portantino said he raised the nearly $7,000 to buy the freeway signs by throwing a giant fundraiser — with tickets priced at $35. The outpouring was so great that he said there was money left over, which was donated to the Obama Foundation, the Chicago non-profit that is building the Barack Obama Presidential Center.
As if the freeway wasn’t enough, Rodeo Road in central Los Angeles, not to be confused with the famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, will be renamed Obama Boulevard.
In Chicago, a proposal to rename a critical freeway after Obama has become enmeshed in local politics.
Bill Daley, who is running for mayor, proposed last month to have the Dan Ryan Expressway renamed for his former boss. He was Obama’s chief of staff.
“Our Chicago expressways are named after towering figures in our history,” said Daley in a statement, citing Kennedy, former President Dwight Eisenhower and former Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. “We should have one for Obama.”
Obama began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago and rose to prominence first as a state legislator, then as a U.S. senator from Illinois before seeking the presidency.
But Daley’s suggestion has run into opposition from the family of Ryan, a local politician for decades, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last month.
Obama already has a freeway named for him in Illinois. A section of Interstate 55 near the town of Pontiac is the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway.
In New York, an online petition by progressive organization MoveOn has gathered more than 32,000 signatures calling for renaming part of Fifth Avenue President Barack H. Obama Avenue. Which part? Only the block between 56th and 57th streets, which just happens to be the stretch in front of the Trump Tower. The choice of that particular stretch was no coincidence, said the Los Angeles legal secretary who started the petition after getting the idea from an internet meme.
“Honestly, (the idea) is petty and vindictive, but as someone pointed out, so is Trump,” said Elizabeth Rowin, who watched the popularity of her idea balloon over about three weeks.
As the president who oversaw the commando operation that netted 9/11 terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden, Obama is deserving of the honor, Rowin said. She is planning to deliver the petition to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council once she has some more signatures. “I think we could get 100,000,” she said.
The question is, amid all this activity, does Obama actually care which roads or schools get his name?
“We don’t keep a running tally of these proposals or actions, and we also don’t comment on them,” said his spokeswoman Katie Hill in an email.