Illinois vs. Hawaii: The battle for Obama's presidential library

Book 'Em, Obama: An underdog Hawaii committee hopes to land Barack Obama's eventual presidential library, and is getting a more-than-4-year headstart.

Illustration: Erik Ries, Photo: Thinkstock

Seven acres of waterfront property and a vision as big as the Pacific Ocean. It’s everything one local group believes it needs to establish a Barack Obama presidential library in Honolulu one day.

Traditionally, these legacy-building libraries are located in a president’s home state. Obama, however, happens to call two places home, and while he may have been born in the Islands, the current frontrunner in the library race is Chicago. It’s where Obama launched his political career. It’s where Michelle worked in the public sector and where Malia and Sasha were born. Chicago’s weather is more conducive to preserving a presidency’s physical papers, records, and artifacts than Hawaii’s tropical climate. It’s also got millions more potential visitors.

To many, Honolulu never looked like more than a dot on the horizon. But that hasn’t kept the Barack Obama Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative committee from trying to paint a bigger picture.

“Our goal for the next year is to make sure we have everything in line to be able to help the President build something on site,” says Robert Perkinson, a UH professor of American Studies who is spearheading the committee, an effort led by the University of Hawaii. “We’re preparing for a more formal process. We have a wide breadth of support, an amazing piece of real estate, and we anticipate, when the President does seek more information, we’ll be ready.”

Current supporters include Sen. Brian Schatz, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Punahou and Kamehameha schools, the state Board of Education, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Bank of Hawaii. The committee has also raised more than $50,000 to date, through a fundraiser gala, sponsorships and donations.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority has even designated a piece of land it owns in Kakaako for a potential library, between the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.

Its concept is to turn the Kakaako landscape into a cutting edge learning district. “Hawaii looks forward to the future rather than the past,” says Perkinson, “that’s what makes it the ambitious choice.” He’s betting Obama will be more interested in a pedagogic endeavor than a mausoleum in his name, and says the center could tackle big issues of the day—food security, alternative energy, childhood wellness, veterans’ issues, whatever Obama wishes, really.

What if Obama wishes for Illinois? A January New York Times story on Obama reported that former aide Susan Sher was “quietly eyeing possibilities for him in Chicago.” Perkinson says his committee is ready to partner with the windy city if Obama chooses to establish institutions in both states, a likely result.

As for the president, he probably won’t enter this conversation until the end of his term. For the moment, the Hawaii committee will continue to pursue its ambitious proposal, further unite a growing base of supporters, remain patient for an official green light and—to recall a familiar campaign phrase—hope.

Did you know? Presidential libraries are funded by private endowments first, then run by the National Archives and Records Administration, at taxpaxer expense.