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What We Know About the Obama Foundation, as Former President’s Plans Take Shape

$1.5 billion Obama Presidential Center planned for Chicago Southside, but much of foundation's strategy still shrouded in secrecy.

Politics Kellie Ell for RealClearLife

As his successor puts a very different stamp on the American political landscape, observers in the Beltway and beyond are looking to see what former President Obama is going to do next.

After a brief, high-profile vacation following the end of his two-term presidency, the Democrat announced the launch of a charity, the Obama Foundation. But aside from a website with a cryptic video and a call for supporters’ opinions to go with donations, details are shrouded in secrecy.

The much-anticipated foundation is clearly still in planning mode. Experts estimate that it could take more than $1.5 billion alone to construct the Obama Presidential Center, which will include the foundation, presidential library, and museum, in the Jackson Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.

“It will be interesting to see the direction that Obama goes once he establishes the library,” Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a non-profit also based in Chicago, told RCL. “He will need time to figure out the course of the foundation. He’s a young man, so he will certainly be more active in the library and foundation than someone older.”

Two months after he left office, all eyes are still on what exactly will be keeping Obama active. On Feb. 24, the former president made headlines when he stopped in the Big Apple to speak with some folks at the Simons Foundation, rumored benefactors for the Obama Foundation.

The Obama Foundation has indicated its focus will be various projects throughout Chicago, the country, and the world, but the specifics are still unclear. Requests for comments from the foundation have gone unanswered, but the Obama.org website states that the Obama Foundation will be “a startup for citizenship — an ongoing project for us to shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.”

Obama website
Homepage of Obama.org (Obama.org)

The organization may still be formulating its own plan. The former commander-in-chief and his crew have been enlisting citizens to “add your voice” to the dialogue by filling out an online survey of what they expect out of the foundation. And people have been responding. In just one month, the organization received hundreds of thousands of ideas for the future Obama Foundation.

Meanwhile the Obamas appointed David Simas, who was one of the president’s top political aides while in office and director of the political strategy and outreach arm of the White House, as CEO of the foundation. The hiring hints that the Obama Foundation will include some level of political activism. In March, another former White House staffer, Yohannes Abraham, was selected to serve under Simas. 

Barack Obama and David Simas
Barack Obama (R) and David Simas (L), outside the Oval Office of the White House on May 18, 2016. (Michael Reynolds – Pool/Getty Images)

 

“Obama is interested in urban issues,” said Benjamin Hufbauer, who wrote a book on presidential libraries and is an associate professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “They’re building the presidential foundation in an area of Chicago that is not exactly prosperous. They will probably do outreach with the intention of giving the area an economic boost.”

Borochoff said the Obama Foundation will most likely be participating in activities that are aligned with Obama’s values, but was quick to point out that this is standard operation.

“Part of having a library is for past presidents to promote their ideals and their history,” he said. “He’s doing nothing insidious.”

The first presidential library was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, as a way for the former president to establish his own memorial. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Carter Center was created, the first presidential foundation, setting the tone for future presidential centers.

“Before that there were no foundations to do public advocacy,” Hufbauer said.

Hufbauer said Democratic presidents usually follow the “Carter model,” doing philanthropic work, while Republican presidents do more academic-based research, such as theorizing about changes to policies.

Currently an 11-person board oversees operations of the Obama Foundation.

By law the foundation will need to find private donors to finance 60 percent of the construction and endowment costs to maintain the library — up 20 percent from previous requirements. Once a library is established the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains the library.

The city of Chicago has provided the land for the presidential center at a nominal cost.

Already, though, there have been some issues with that site, such as major roads that cut through the potential park area. The foundation has toyed with the idea of closing the through ways only to be met by opposition from local activists.

Earlier this year the Obama Foundation announced the New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will head the team of landscape architects, along with architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the husband-and-wife team also based in Manhattan, to help shape the grounds around the center in Jackson Park.

“We are honored to be a part of this very exciting project,” Tiffany Jow, who handles communications for Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, said in an email. “Unfortunately none of the architects are permitted to discuss the project or its design at this time.”

The Obama Presidential Center is expected to open in 2021.