In the weeks after the midterm elections, President Obama must be feeling pretty down about the last two years of his presidency, as he will be forced to battle with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate. However, he now has the opportunity to look forward to the planning of his presidential library and museum, which will entail selecting its location.
In September, the Barack Obama Foundation, a group set up to plan and develop the library, announced four finalists for the site of the library: the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University and the University of Hawaii. The Foundation asked the four sites to submit in-depth proposals by Dec. 11, and the Obamas are due to pick a location to house the project in early 2015.
“These four potential partners have come the farthest in meeting our criteria and have each demonstrated a strong vision for the future Obama Presidential Library,” Foundation Chairman Martin Nesbitt said in a statement. “We look forward to working with each institution to further refine their proposals over the coming months, and to presenting our recommendations to the President and First Lady early next year.”
Obama has roots in all of the four possible locations, growing up in Hawaii, attending school at Columbia in New York and living and beginning his political career in Chicago. These connections are key to the selection of the library site, according to Alvin Tillery Jr., a professor of political science at Northwestern.
“The vast majority of the 13 presidential libraries are located in places where the president had birth roots or deep residency roots,” Tillery said. “If that trend were to hold, I don’t think anyone who studies the presidency would be surprised if Chicago is selected.”
In Chicago, Tillery said the University of Chicago site is the one to beat, citing Obama’s ties there as a professor, his advisors’ connections to the university and the Obama family residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood. “I think the South Side has got to be the leading contender,” he said.
Tillery added that the development plans for each location would be key. The UIC bid is hoping to highlight the university’s diverse student population, as well as the possibility for economic development near its location in the West Side.
“As Chicago’s only public research university and one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, UIC is the ideal institution to host the Obama Presidential Library and Museum, and we are honored to be selected to participate in the next phase of this process,” UIC chancellor Paula Allen-Meares said in a statement. “UIC and President Obama share a common goal – a more open and inclusive world.”
The University of Chicago’s bid emphasizes the opportunity for economic development as well as its standing as a major research institution and cultural hub. The selection of UChicago as a finalist “affirms our strong belief that the library could be transformative for the heart of the South Side, bringing new economic and cultural opportunities to all of Chicago,” University President Robert Zimmer said in a statement.
Tillery, however, warned that presidential libraries are not usually engines of major economic development. Their scope is usually limited to tourists and scholars, and the libraries are unable to create jobs in the surrounding area without a strong redevelopment plan.
Richard Cox, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies presidential libraries, added that the main focus of the libraries should be the access to the archives and records of the Obama Administration. Outside economic benefits are “beside the point,” he said.
But, Obama could decide to make economic inequality the focus of his library, Tillery said, and include community initiatives such as mentoring and youth programs.
“All of this is going to depend on what President Obama wants,” Tillery said.