WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama dropped by a Wednesday night dinner organized by his Obama Foundation — the attendees included Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman — with his team increasingly reaching out as his foundation, library and museum in Chicago is taking shape.
The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that last month Obama Foundation leaders met with key figures in the Chicago philanthropic community as it seeks to find the Obama Center’s unique niche and not duplicate the work other foundations have been doing in Chicago for years.
At the same time, Obama and first lady Michelle having been personally interviewing the seven architects who are the finalists to design the Obama Center, which will be located in Washington Park or Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the dinner party consisted of “some friends, many of them are people who are assisting the outside work of the foundation as it gets up and running.”
They dined after “meeting over the course of the day to sort of talk about some of the planning for the foundation. And when the president heard they were in town, he wanted to go over and see them,” Earnest said. He said Obama told him the dinner “was almost entirely social.”
The dinner took place at BLT Steak, a short distance from the White House. Besides the Hollywood stars, former Obama White House staffers and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, the Sun-Times has learned Obama Foundation executive director Robbin Cohen and Lynn Taliento, a McKinsey & Company consultant helping to shape the Obama post-presidency, also were present.
A spokesman for the foundation said in a statement, “The Foundation periodically hosts discussions with friends, former Administration staffers and outside advisors who have an interest in the ongoing development of programs and activities. Yesterday the President stopped by a dinner that the Foundation was hosting for this group.”
One of those discussions took place in Chicago on Jan. 29 — though convened by Julia Stasch, the president of Chicago’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Stasch invited Cohen, Taliento, Marty Nesbitt, the Obama Foundation chair, and his new vice president of civic engagement, Michael Strautmanis, to a session with the who’s who of Chicago foundation leadership.
Terry Mazany, president and CEO for The Chicago Community Trust, told me that the Obama foundation was looking to develop programming ideas and the “apt metaphor” at this stage is “wet clay.”
Mazany said the discussion was a “wide-ranging overview” of the “vision” of the Obamas’ “of how they want this to be a place of transformation. And so I think Lynn’s role is to help curate a range of ideas.”
The Obama Foundation was sensitive that they were the new kids on the block and were “very respectful to the reality,” Mazany said, “that there are institutions that have invested many years, time and resources to just those problems” that the foundation may also be interested in addressing.
Another person at that meeting told me the Obama Foundation officials put on a PowerPoint presentation on how they wanted the Obama Center to be “different from other presidential museums.”
Other Chicago foundation leaders at the Stasch meeting were Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, which has already pledged $1 million to the Obama Foundation; David Hiller, president of the McCormick Foundation; Cindy Moelis, representing the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation; Sandra Guthman and Gillian Darlow of the Polk Bros. Foundation; and Jim McDonough, the executive director of the Alphawood Foundation. There were also representatives of leading Chicago area corporations including Allstate, JPMorgan Chase and Boeing.
A third person at the Chicago meeting told me the Obama team wanted to let “the local philanthropic community know that they would be included in the ideas as they went along.”
The BLT dinner and the meetings with the Chicago foundations were not fundraising events. But outreach now from Obama and his team paves the way for the ask in the future.
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet