Barack Obama hasn’t even finished the second year of his first term in the White House, but officials with two universities that are interested in building his presidential library are already positioning themselves to win the Hawaii-born president’s favor.
The University of Hawaii is well into early preparations — including preliminary searches for potential sites, talks with National Archives officials and deliberations on what if any new academic center might accompany an Obama library and museum.
The University of Chicago, located in the city where Obama’s political career began, signaled an interest a year ago but is saying very little now.
And Obama is saying even less. Asked to discuss Obama’s views about a presidential library, a White House spokesman simply said, “No comment.”
Nonetheless, Hawaii is unabashed in wanting to be ready when the time comes to bid.
“This is something that presidents typically think about toward the end of their presidency, and Obama hopefully is still toward the beginning of his presidency,” said Robert Perkinson, an American Studies professor who is helping lead UH’s effort.
“So it’s not surprising that (Obama) doesn’t want to think about it. But those of us who are interested in bidding, we have to think about it a lot earlier than he does,” Perkinson said.
There currently are 13 presidential libraries, spanning from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush. The groundbreaking for Bush’s facility at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is scheduled for Tuesday.
Presidents aren’t required to establish libraries to house their records. But if they do, there are several rules on how that’s accomplished.
For one, presidential libraries have to be privately financed — typically by a nonprofit foundation. Once built, they are turned over to the National Archives. Some libraries have received financial aid from state and local governments.
A law that took effect with Bush’s library also requires the foundations to establish an endowment to help with operating expenses.
The hosting institution may develop educational and cultural programs to be conducted at the library. It also can build an accompanying academic center akin to the John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson schools that were created in conjunction with their respective presidential libraries.
Curt Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Rochester who wrote a book on presidential libraries, said presidents typically want an academic component attached.
An Obama presidential library and museum would be a unique resource for UH students, scholars and tourists, said Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor for academic affairs at UH Manoa.
It also would be an economic driver, he said, citing the $1.5 billion in activity and 300,000 annual visitors that ex-President Bill Clinton’s library has brought to Little Rock, Arkansas, since 2005.
“If I’ve been to Honolulu many times, why will I come back the 8th or 9th time? We do believe that (an Obama library) would be an additional attraction here that would bring repeat visitors as well as many first-time visitors,” Dasenbrock added.
Also in UH’s favor is the fact that Obama’s parents and sister are graduates, although the president himself graduated from Columbia and received his law degree from Harvard.
Perkinson said Clinton’s library was built in a warehouse district that has since revitalized, and offers not only research opportunities but cultural programs as well.
“It’s a very beloved institution, as far as we can tell, within Little Rock, as I think it would be in Honolulu,” he said.
Perkinson, Dasenbrock and other UH officials in September visited the Clinton library after talks with Archives administrators in Washington.
It’s unclear whether the University of Chicago has taken similar steps. Its president, Robert Zimmer, told Bloomberg last year he was studying the benefits of having a presidential library on campus.
But last week, spokesman Jeremy Manier would say only that the university was fortunate to have once had Obama on its law school faculty and Michelle Obama in several senior administrative roles.
“It is premature to discuss a presidential library,” Manier added.
A bid from the University of Chicago would be a potent rival to UH, Smith said.
“I would think just as a layman that the University of Chicago might be very attractive. It’s home for Obama. It’s urban,” said Smith.
As for Obama’s interest in a library, it’s not unexpected the White House would say almost nothing, said Smith, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. To do otherwise, he said, would be seen as presumptuous.
But like previous presidents, Obama has the luxury of waiting for proposals to roll in from rival suitors, he said. “Cutthroat might be too strong a word but certainly competitive is not.”