The Obama Presidential Center: Obama’s ‘mothership’ for his post-presidency

Michelle Obama gave her personal voucher for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park when she said, “Barack and I wouldn’t bring some crap up in our neighborhood.”

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Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama appear at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago on Oct. 29.

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama appear on stage together after the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology on the South Side on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In case you didn’t get what the Obama Presidential Center is going to be, exactly, former President Barack Obama put it this way Tuesday, speaking at the third annual Obama Foundation Summit: “We joke about it a little bit, like this is the mothership.”

Obama and former first lady Michelle summed up the purpose they see for their center — to be a hub of a hoped-for revived South Side economy and the heartbeat for their global programming and initiatives.

In separate appearances at the summit, each, in their own way, promoted the project, as if they needed to do another selling job to shore it up. I see it as mainly already sold. But all the documents have not been signed yet. There are outstanding issues, particularly the resistance of Obama to a community development agreement. In one way or another, that, over time, will be resolved. There is also the matter of closing Cornell Drive in the park.

What is non-negotiable is that the Obamas want their center to be on 19.3 acres in historic Jackson Park. Opponents lost a federal court case now on appeal. Because Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, there had to be a federal review, hitting the two-year mark in December with an end date uncertain. If the Obamas had picked a site somewhere else on the South Side, construction would already be underway.

My analysis is in the end, Jackson Park will be the site.

Michelle, born and raised on the South Side, with her older brother, Craig Robinson — now an executive with the New York Knicks — in their session said Jackson Park, not far from where they grew up at 74th and Euclid, is underused, echoing a threshold argument the foundation has made for years.

Michelle Obama is “South Side” by birth and Barack Obama is “South Side” by choice. Michelle Obama gave her personal voucher for the project — a museum, a forum, a Chicago Public Library and a multipurpose gym and meeting structure — when she said, “Barack and I wouldn’t bring some crap up in our neighborhood.”

Obama, who rose to the presidency in part because he captured the aspirations of a nation in 2008, focused more on the functions of the center in terms of nurturing his brand of organizing and engagement.

“Another way of thinking about it is we want this to be a university for activism and social change,” Obama said. 

“...This will be the heartbeat. This will be the beacon from which we are sending out a signal that the values we believe in are shared. And that they are strong. And that they can overcome those who would undermine them. And we can make progress.”

The summit was held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, with the idea, Obama Foundation CEO David Simas said, of highlighting an institution that is part of the fabric of Chicago’s South Side.

Let me get this out of the way: Neither Obama made mention of President Donald Trump, who threw some grenades at Chicago — it’s crime and sanctuary city status — on Monday while making his first appearance in the city as president and who may soon be impeached. Neither did they comment on the 2020 presidential race. Neither did they say anything about the Chicago Teachers Union strike.

The summit drew top Obama Foundation donors, whose name tags reflected their VIP status. Some members of the Obama band were back together: David Plouffe, his 2008 campaign manager and White House adviser, and Julianna Smoot, also a White House alum who was his 2008 finance director, now both foundation board members. Obama confidante and adviser Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama’s former chiefs of staff Susan Sher and Tina Tchen were there, as well as attendees from more than 40 nations.

Obama issued a social media warning. “There is this sense sometimes that the way (of) making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and … if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the ... wrong verb,” then “I can feel pretty good about myself. ... because, ‘how woke I was, I called you out.’”

Said Obama, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

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