On these sun-bathed shores, Barack Obama was born and spent his formative years, soaking in an island sensibility that his wife and friends say is indispensable to understanding who he is as president. Yet in the search for a home for his future presidential library, Hawaii has become the underdog, stuck in Chicago’s perpetual shadow.
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 has 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 have resigned themselves to the likelihood that 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 by name. The plan is to create a transparent 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.
"I wish I did. It would probably make our jobs a lot easier," Tsutsui said.
With the governor’s blessing, a University of Hawaii professor, Robert Perkinson, is coordinating the statewide campaign with a small budget granted by the university.
Perkinson has made the case directly to Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who has served as a liaison between Hawaii and Washington, two people briefed on those discussions said. Perkinson’s team has also pressed the case with Bobby Titcomb, Obama’s childhood friend. Titcomb and Obama golfed together four times last week during the president’s annual Hawaiian vacation.
Hawaii’s development authority has set aside numerous parcels that could be given to the library or leased at nominal cost. The showpiece is an 8-acre plot of undeveloped land sandwiched between downtown Honolulu and the hopping Waikiki tourist zone.
From a future office on the beachfront property, Obama could have panoramic views stretching from Diamond Head, Honolulu’s iconic volcanic crater, to the island’s lush, fog-tipped mountains. A break wall formed by volcanic rocks buttressing the site from the Pacific Ocean might mitigate the site’s tsunami risks. Students at the university have already started developing risk models.
Picturesque views aside, the plot sits in a gritty corner of Honolulu called Kakaako, where homeless encampments have cropped up on many sidewalks and methane exhaust pipes peek out from a landfill-turned-park. On a recent morning, a young woman in traditional Hawaiian garb was pushing two naked children down the street in a grocery cart.
Wary of creating the impression Obama is already looking beyond his presidency, White House officials are reluctant to discuss the library, and insist that advisers are spending little time on it.
Still, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Alyssa Mastromonaco, has been tapped as the point person for all things related to the library. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser often described as the guardian of Obama’s legacy, also is involved.
Outside the White House, Julianna Smoot, Obama’s re-election deputy campaign manager and a former White House social secretary, has been tasked with raising money; if previous presidential libraries are a guide, the venture will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman and Obama friend who served as treasurer for his first presidential run, is closely involved, while former White House communications director Anita Dunn is expected to handle the press component.
Tom Apple, the chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he understands Obama’s reluctance to discuss his hopes for a future library this early. Apple recalled a conversation years earlier when he was University of Delaware provost and pitched Joe Biden on building a "Biden Center" at the vice president’s alma mater.
"He was the vice president, so he said, ‘I can’t engage in any of that while I’m sitting. So go forward, try to do all these great things, but we have to wait until I’m out of office until we can do any of these kinds of things formally,’" Apple said.