HONOLULU — Not far from these wind-swept shores, Barack Obama was born and raised, soaking in an island sensibility his family said he’s carried with him throughout his journey as president. Yet, in the search for a home for his future presidential library, Hawaii is playing the underdog, overshadowed by Chicago and the commanding role it plays in Obama’s story.
It’s not for lack of trying. A high-level campaign has been underway here since Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 — before it was even clear he’d win his party’s nomination, much less the presidency.
From the governor to the state’s congressional delegation and local university leaders, Hawaii spared no effort in laying the groundwork for a potential library, gently pressing Obama’s sister and close friends, and setting aside prime oceanfront real estate just in case Hawaii’s favorite son chooses Oahu to host the monument to his legacy.
But as the gears start to turn in the Obama machinery that will eventually develop the library, the focus has increasingly turned to Chicago, where Obama was first elected and came into his own as a national political figure. It is a place many of his advisers and staunchest supporters call home.
Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Chicago’s mayor. Obama’s wife, Michelle, was born there, and her former chief of staff, Susan Sher, is leading a behind-the-scenes effort to lure the library to University of Chicago from her post in the university president’s office. It’s the same university where Obama once taught law and where his longtime senior adviser, David Axelrod, recently established a political institute.
So, Hawaii officials resigned themselves to the likelihood the library, which will house Obama’s records and artifacts, will go to Chicago. If that’s the case, Hawaii is hoping for second-best: a presidential center, institute or think tank that can serve as a secondary base of operations for a young, ambitious ex-president.
“We really don’t see it as an either-or proposition,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who’s assisted the effort for years as a former lieutenant governor and state lawmaker. “We see no reason that the president has to be forced to choose between his two hometowns.”
It’s a model not without precedent: Bill Clinton chose Arkansas for his library but housed his foundation and humanitarian efforts in New York. For Obama, the process will formally get underway early in 2014, when a nonprofit foundation will be set up and a group formed to raise seed money and evaluate potential sites, said a person involved in the discussions, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the library on the record. The plan is to create a process where supporters advocating for their sites understand the expectations and goals, the person said.
Such clarity will be welcome news to Hawaii Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who is coordinating efforts in Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office and said he doesn’t know what Obama is looking for in a library site.