CHICAGO — It would be crushing here if the winner was New York. The bid from Hawaii, where Barack Obama was born, seems an afterthought.
Four short words sum up the confident pitch from the South Side for the right to host the 44th president’s official library and museum: “Bring it on home.”
The slogan — taken from the 1962 Sam Cooke hit song “Bring It On Home to Me” — is splashed on posters, video clips and a T-shirt that Ghian Foreman likes to show off.
Foreman, 41, a nonprofit executive who grew up here, went to Washington to witness both of Obama’s inaugurations. There are multiple scenarios for an Obama library in Chicago, including one on the West Side. But to Foreman, it is inconceivable that the president would choose anyplace other than this lakeshore city for a center devoted to his legacy.
“We feel like he’s one of us,” Foreman said. “He’s a Chicagoan. He’s not from New York. . . . The president — this is his home. I don’t care about Hawaii.”
Sometime soon, probably before the end of March, Obama’s foundation is expected to announce a development partner for the Barack Obama Presidential Center. Two of the finalists, culled from an initial field of 13, are Columbia University, the private Ivy League school in Manhattan where Obama earned a bachelor’s degree, and the University of Hawaii, the public flagship of his native state.
The other finalists are a pair of universities here that could hardly be more different.
The private University of Chicago, founded in the 19th century, has 15,000 students and a neo-Gothic campus in Hyde Park with echoes of Oxford and Cambridge. It has deep ties to the president and the first lady. Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the university’s law school for several years until his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate. Michelle Obama was a vice president for community and external affairs at its medical center and also an associate dean of student services.
A few blocks northeast of campus, on East 53rd Street, a plaque marks where the Obamas are said to have first kissed outside a Baskin-Robbins. They also own a house in nearby Kenwood.
The public University of Illinois at Chicago, just west of downtown, took shape after World War II during boom years for state-funded higher education. UIC’s stark modernist campus of concrete and brick has a close-up view of expressways and skyscrapers, including the Willis Tower, once known as the Sears Tower. While the University of Chicago is ultra-selective, turning down 92 out of every 100 undergraduate applicants, UIC is far more accessible, admitting 70 percent of applicants and serving many more students from families with financial need.
UIC officials say their 28,000-student research university is in sync with Obama’s philosophy. “We don’t pay attention to diversity just because it’s convenient,” said Alfred W. Tatum, UIC’s dean of education. “It’s truly at our core.”
Obama never taught at UIC. But he held a reelection rally at the UIC Forum.
“Hello, Chicago!” Obama said in January 2012. “Oh, it’s good to be — it’s good to be home. It is good to be home. No place like it.”
Will the hometown connection seal the deal for the Windy City? The closer could be Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first White House chief of staff. He has vowed to do whatever it takes to secure the library.
“I’m betting on Rahm,” said James L. “Skip” Rutherford, who coordinated planning for Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock. “The rest can be worked out — and will be worked out.”
The choice is entirely up to the Obamas, and they will work with a recommendation from the foundation’s board of directors, which includes Obama’s friend Martin Nesbitt; his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng; and political strategist David Plouffe. The foundation, responsible for raising money for a project that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, declined an interview request. Obama discussed library plans with foundation officials Thursday in a visit to Chicago. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that no decision had been made.
Presidential libraries, as the public knows them, are less than a century old. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the tradition when he built a repository for his papers and memorabilia that opened in 1941 on his family estate in New York. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and his successors joined him in creating what is now a network of 13 libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. In the past 50 years, these complexes have grown increasingly elaborate, often encompassing schools and think tanks meant to perpetuate the legacy of a president through higher education or politics.
Historians researching earlier presidents rely on manuscript collections at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. Tourists can visit presidential museums at birthplaces and estates across the country, with George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello the most famous. Modern presidential libraries combine these elements: part archives, part shrines.
Obama, in seeking a university partner, is following a recent pattern. President George W. Bush chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas to host his library after a competition that included Baylor University and the University of Dallas. It opened in 2013.
Sometimes university plans fall through. In the early 1980s, Duke University debated a proposal to host Richard M. Nixon’s presidential library. Nixon was a graduate of Duke’s law school, but critics objected to an affiliation with the president who had resigned amid the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s library was instead built at his birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Stanford University officials sought to land President Ronald Reagan’s library, sparking an ideological debate. Critics questioned whether the library would put a conservative stamp on the university; proponents said the uproar showed the intolerance of liberal academics.
Eventually the Reagan library was built in Simi Valley, Calif. Today, it is one of the most popular, drawing more than 380,000 visitors in 2014 to a site revered in Republican politics. (Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher of The Washington Post, is chairman of the board of trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.)
Here in Chicago, competing plans envision that the Obama library will lift the fortunes of low-income neighborhoods dotted with vacant property and other signs of decay.
The University of Chicago, widely considered the more likely choice, proposed to locate the library just northwest of campus, on 22 acres in Washington Park, or southeast, on 21 acres in Jackson Park. The Washington Park site, which also would include six acres of university-owned land, appears to be getting more attention.
University officials say a library honoring the nation’s first black president would draw several hundred thousand visitors a year, channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into the city.
“It’s probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Susan Sher, a senior adviser to University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. Sher, a former chief of staff to the first lady, is a key liaison to Obama’s library team. “Economic development is extremely important to them,” she said.
The Clinton library, which opened in 2004, helped rejuvenate downtown Little Rock. The Obama library could do much the same, Sher said, but on a larger scale.
Columbia has revealed little about its offer to put the Obama library on its 17-acre Manhattanville campus. Backers of the University of Hawaii bid have released artistic renderings of a library that could be built on eight acres in Honolulu, with sweeping Pacific views. But the island proposal is thought to face long odds against the mainland options.
UIC’s proposal offers six acres on its main campus and 23 acres of city land five miles west, in a community called North Lawndale. Activists are teaming with the university to draw attention to the huge catalytic effect Obama’s library would have for a struggling West Side neighborhood that once was a hub for businesses such as Sears.
“If you want to make the most impact in Chicago, and really make a statement in Chicago, then that’s a destination spot,” said former professional basketball star Isiah Thomas, who grew up on the West Side. He is backing the UIC bid. His message to the Obamas: “With 23 acres, we can make your dreams come true.”
W. Delores Robinson, principal of Sumner Math and Science Community Academy, a public school next to the North Lawndale site, recalled the vacant land once was home to a tobacco snuff factory. Then the company left, and the factory crumbled. Then it was an illicit dump. Politicians have long promised to remedy the blight.
Robinson marvels at the prospect — even if it seems a long shot — that the Obamas could provide the solution.
“Every student that comes to this school, with that presidential library sitting a few feet away, will be inspired,” she said.
UIC officials say they already have achieved a victory of sorts through the attention that the competition has drawn to a school overshadowed by the state’s flagship university in Urbana-Champaign. But they are not conceding the contest.
Robert Somol, director of UIC’s school of architecture, said he would tell this to the president as the Obamas ponder their library choice: “Do the surprising thing. Because that’s what makes change possible.”