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Obama urges corporate America to ‘call folks out’ over voter suppression; price jumps for Obama Center

Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett put a new cost on the Obama Presidential Center complex — “less than” $700 million, up from a $500 million estimate.

Former President Barack Obama speaks to The Economic Club of Chicago on Friday, June 4, 2021.
Former President Barack Obama speaks to The Economic Club of Chicago on Friday.
Screenshot

WASHINGTON — Ex-President Barack Obama on Friday urged corporate America to “call folks out” when it comes to the growing number of states approving voter suppression measures, while Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett put a new price tag on the presidential complex — “less than” $700 million, up from a $500 million estimate.

Obama and Jarrett spoke separately at a virtual event hosted by The Economic Club of Chicago, as the foundation is raising its profile in the run-up to the Obama Presidential Center Foundation groundbreaking this fall.

Earlier in the week, Obama was in Chicago, speaking to youths and, with Jarrett, meeting with a group of South Side small business owners.

Republican-controlled legislatures in a variety of states have passed laws making it harder to vote in the wake of former President Donald Trump making the baseless, unproven claim the election was rigged.

The narrative that the election was stolen “is being still perpetuated,” Obama said, never using Trump’s name. A variety of news outlets have reported that Trump has been telling people he expects to be “reinstated” this summer — even though there is no mechanism in the U.S. legal system to do so. Trump speaks to North Carolina Republicans on Saturday.

“That’s the kind of dangerous behavior that we’re gonna have to push back on, and look, I think the corporate community has a responsibility to at least call folks out on that,” Obama said.

“This really has to do with the basic rules by which we all have agreed to keep this diverse multiracial democracy functioning.”

Jarrett is on the board of the Economic Club, whose members are a who’s who of Chicago’s corporate and philanthropic elite.

The Obama Foundation has been stepping up fundraising from the Chicago area, kicking off a drive in April to raise $400 million from Chicago companies and foundations for construction and endowment costs.

Overall, the Obama foundation has raised $900 million so far, Jarrett said, with Chicago donors putting up $266 million of the $400 million goal.

The cost of the “bricks and mortar” to build the complex, spread across 19.3 acres, “is a little less” than $700 million, Jarrett said. For years, the estimated construction cost for the project was $500 million and that’s the figure used when Obama Foundation officials met with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board in April.

Obama was questioned by club chair Debra Cafaro, the CEO and chair of Ventas, Inc. Club CEO David Snyder interviewed Jarrett.

On other matters:

  • Obama said he had to “acknowledge” not enough was done on his watch to deal with the rise of “right-wing populism,” forces that led to the election of Trump and Trumpism.

“We did not effectively enough address very real concerns about economic inequality fast enough.”

He added, “one of the threats to democracy is when people don’t feel as if the language of politics is one that speaks to their sense of identity and culture, and who they are.”

  • Teaming with his former Attorney General Eric Holder, one of Obama’s post presidential projects is waging a drive against political gerrymandering, which means most members of Congress “never have to try to appeal to the other side.” Holder and Obama have been aiming at gerrymandering in Republican-controlled states.

Obama did not mention gerrymandering in Illinois — where map-making is controlled by Democrats — even as he spoke after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation for Democratic-drawn maps that give their party an advantage in the Illinois General Assembly, the Illinois Supreme Court and Cook County Board of Review. Democrats are expected to give themselves an edge when congressional district lines are mapped later this year.

  • The Obama Center as a South Side anchor will help Chicago’s image, Obama said, and address the “concern” that “once you get outside” the Loop, Wrigleyville or Lincoln Park, “then now you’re in uncharted territory.”

“I think that so often, the image of Chicago is being dictated by some of the bad news, rather than all that greatness.”

Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett speaks to The Economic Club of Chicago on Friday, June 4, 2021.
Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett speaks to The Economic Club of Chicago on Friday.
Screenshot