Obama Foundation Changes Presidential Libraries — Perhaps Forever

The Barack Obama Foundation is hiring a director for the Barack Obama Presidential Museum.

That short sentence of fourteen words is astonishing in three ways.

First, no presidential foundation has hired a director for a presidential library or museum; since FDR opened the first federal presidential library in 1941, directors all have been federal employees, under the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). While NARA has granted the foundations the right to approve or reject its choice, the directors have been federal employees.

Second, no federal presidential library ever has been separated into two distinct institutions, with one director of a federal library and one director of a private museum.*

And third, while the agreements between presidential foundations and NARA about how the government operates presidential libraries and museums vary, no foundation ever has retained full ownership and operation of the museum portion.

This is a game-changing development, and one that not only affects the Obama Presidential Center, but, likely, all future presidential libraries. After this, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any future president’s foundation to expect the federal government to accept a presidential museum and operate it with taxpayer dollars.

Depending on the final agreement — which will come around 2021 — this also likely saves the Obama Foundation an enormous amount of money. Since passage of the Presidential Libraries Act Amendments of 1986 (which, among other things, sought to reduce the cost to taxpayers of future presidential libraries), foundations have been required to provide NARA with an endowment equal to 20% of the cost of acquiring the land for, building, and equipping a presidential library. However, foundations have found clever ways to avoid ponying up the full amount, including not donating portions of the building to the government, “saving” millions.

The resulting funds, then — called endowments — have not been sufficient to defray significantly the costs of maintenance and operation. To remedy this, Congress twice has raised the endowment formula, first to 40%, and then to 60% — three times as much as earlier presidents — beginning with “presidential depositories built for Presidents who take the oath of office for the first time after July 1, 2002.”

Which means: Barack Obama.

By withholding the museum portion of the Obama Presidential Center to be deeded to or otherwise operated by NARA, the Obama Foundation effectively removes tens of thousands of square feet and millions of dollars of equipment from the endowment formula, saving a considerable sum.

In 2015, in an open letter, I asked President Obama not to build a self-commemorative museum, or, if he did, to not donate it to the United States for the taxpayers to fund and operate in perpetuity. It looks as if he’ll do the latter.

From the job description, it seems quite certain that the Obama Foundation anticipates keeping and operating both the foundation space as well as the museum on its own — leaving only the archival repository to be operated by NARA:

This position will require close and collegial collaboration with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA https://www.archives.gov/) and the Obama Library Director, who will oversee the collection accrued during the eight year presidential administration and the further acquisition and management of collections, the head of the Foundation and senior leadership across the Obama Presidential Center, as well as with the Obamas themselves when appropriate. The position initially will report to the Executive Director of the Foundation.

Removing the federal government from the thorny, conflict-ridden, and often distasteful (to many inside and outside of government) task of operating — celebrating even — political, politicized, academically compromised, secretly funded, legacy-polishing museums has been the dream of many reformers for decades.

Perhaps the Obama Foundation will go a step further (no, not an independent review of the historical accuracy and thoroughness of its exhibit about President Obama’s two terms in office…that seems a bit too much to hope for, at least at this stage). Perhaps, as the Clinton Foundation did when it built President Clinton’s library in Little Rock, the Obama Foundation will build the Obama Library — the archival repository and research institution — physically separate from the Obama museum and presidential center.

Along with organizationally separating the museum from NARA, this would offer a clear, bright line between nonpartisan government employees faithfully executing their duties under the law to preserve and make available presidential records and the activities of a partisan political organization.

Can we hope this will lead to real change? Yes. Yes we can.

*From 1990 to 2007, the Nixon Foundation operated the private Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, with no connection to the National Archives, save for agreements to display items from the federal Richard Nixon Presidential Materials Project.

For many years, the Deputy Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum has overseen the museum, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about 130 miles away from the library, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.