Obama library confronts the question of symbolism vs. substance
Center aims to train people in the nitty-gritty of durable change
Ever since he stepped onto the national political stage, Barack Obama, the symbol, has been in conflict with Barack Obama, the pragmatist.
His famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech is better remembered for its soaring aspiration than the keep-it-real admonition that people have to partner with government to make progress happen. As president, some critics said, he underachieved and was given insufficient scrutiny because of his race. Others argued that the first black president did not do enough to help black people.
Obama mostly answered with facts and figures about how he repaired the broken economy and worked to slow climate change. Or about how policies such as Obamacare and reworked student loan programs were designed for all Americans but disproportionately benefited African-Americans.
Echoes of that pragmatic Obama could be heard Wednesday as he laid out plans for his presidential center to be built in Chicago’s Jackson Park. There was little talk of symbolic racial achievement but lots of talk about how the project, estimated to cost at least a half billion dollars, could be used to impart practical skills, inspire young people and serve as an engine for economic growth on Chicago’s struggling South Side.
Obama said he wanted to develop a presidential center, not just a library or museum, because he wanted it to help people navigate the future, not just reflect on the past. The center, to be constructed over the next four years, will have three buildings laid out in the style of a small college campus. There will be a museum with artifacts from his presidency, a library that will archive his presidential papers, a building to host public events and open space that will integrate into the surrounding park. The plan also envisions a movie studio and recording studio, likely firsts for presidential centers.
“We are interested in having displays and exhibits that can teach young people about not just my presidency, but all the people who led to my presidency,” he said. “The process of struggle and the process of overcoming that I stand on top of.”
In some ways, the center harkens back to Obama’s roots as a community organizer. The former president envisions it serving as a center for training people in the practicalities of leadership, as well as a place to train young people in fields such as filmmaking and coding.
“What we want this to be is the world’s premier institution for training young people and leadership to make a difference in their communities, in their countries and in the world,” Obama said. “That is our goal.”
For a president whose election made him a symbol of racial hope, and whose charisma and eloquence energized supporters and even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama often talked about the limits of his power. He could not just decree change. Instead, he said, change comes about through persistent, organized effort that shapes politics. “We are the change that we seek,” he would say.
Similarly, Obama does not envision the new center reaching for the sweeping change that some people hoped for when he ascended to the presidency. Instead, he wants it to be a place where people hone the skills needed to make the incremental but durable change that is the stuff of government. He said he hopes to see the center partnering with schools and colleges to teach the process of public policy, activism and politics.
The plans for the most visible monument of Obama’s postpresidency speak to his determination to move beyond symbols to the nitty-gritty of tangible change.
He sees the project, for instance, as a catalyst for upgrading Jackson Park, a 500-acre oasis on the South Side designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed New York’s Central Park. Despite its beauty, Obama said, Jackson Park is underused, not easily accessible to pedestrians and a little rough around the edges. “It is not as good as it could be,” he said.
The big public parks in predominantly white areas of town are better, but Obama sees development of his presidential center changing that. The plan calls for closing a six-lane road that bisects the park, creating better access to Lake Michigan, and adding sledding hills, playgrounds, barbecue grills and an open lawn — all of which should make the park more inviting to the mostly black communities that surround it.
While unveiling plans for his center, the former president announced that he and former first lady Michelle Obama were donating $2 million to help fund summer jobs and apprenticeships in Chicago. Those positions will start this summer, in the hope that more young people will be qualified for the estimated 1,500 jobs expected to be generated by construction of the center.
No doubt many of the historians who visit the Obama center after it opens in 2021 will be searching for information to help define the legacy of the nation’s first black president. Did he live up to the hype? Were his achievements more symbolic than substantive? Did he make real change?
But if the plans for this center offer any clues, Obama seems convinced that real change does not start at the top. The former president said his greatest wish for his presidential center is that it instills hope among young people in Chicago.
“It is about the story that our children tell themselves,” Obama said. “If they see a world-class institution in their community, populated by people who come from their community, they have a sense of importance, and that ultimately is what I want to give back.”