White House

Obama library likely to set off a fundraising frenzy

President Barack Obama speaks at Lehman College, in the Bronx borough of New York, May 4, 2015. Obama announced the launch of a nonprofit foundation to carry out the work of his My Brother's Keeper initiative.
President Barack Obama speaks at Lehman College, in the Bronx borough of New York, May 4, 2015. Obama announced the launch of a nonprofit foundation to carry out the work of his My Brother's Keeper initiative. AP

The announcement Tuesday that Barack Obama will build his presidential library in Chicago did more than excite the South Side of the city. It also kicked off what’s likely to become a fundraising frenzy.

Even if Obama doesn’t raise any money himself – as he pledged not to do while in office – independent analysts fear that fundraising on his behalf still might create conflicts of interest in his final two years in the White House.

“Is this a problem? Absolutely,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. “Even if he doesn’t solicit himself, (donors) are seeing all kinds of signals that this is a priority for him. It’s all a wink and a nod. . . . It buys access.”

The Barack Obama Foundation – a group composed of his longtime friends and supporters, including his former campaign manager and fundraiser – is expected to collect hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps rivaling the $700 million Obama raised to win the White House in the first place.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said presidents should wait until they left office to raise money for their libraries. But most contributions come while a president is in office and most donations, he said, come from those who have issues pending before the administration.

Government ran presidential libraries

President Location Original cost (current dollars)
1 Herbert Hoover West Branch, Iowa $5 million
2 Franklin Roosevelt Hyde Park, N.Y. $6 million
3 Harry Truman Independence, Mo. $15 million
4 Dwight Eisenhower Abilene, Kan. $16 million
5 John F. Kennedy Boston, Mass. $39 million
6 Lyndon Johnson Austin, Texas $104 million
7 Richard Nixon Yorba Linda, Calif. $50 million
8 Gerald Ford Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Mich. $18 million
9 Jimmy Carter Atlanta, Ga. $59 million
10 Ronald Reagan Simi Valley, Calif. $103 million
11 George H.W. Bush College Station, Texas $103 million
12 Bill Clinton Little Rock, Ark. $205 million
13 George W. Bush Dallas, Texas $504 million

“He’s doing this while he’s in office because he knows that will pull in the money,” Holman said. “It is very problematic. The conflict of interest is ever present.”

Donations will pay for the construction of the facility, which will be much more than a library: part museum, part education center and part archive, as well as a gift shop and restaurant. It will house enough unclassified documents to fill four 18-wheelers and enough artifacts to fill a swimming pool. Private contributions and taxpayers’ dollars will share the cost of maintenance after the doors open in 2020 or 2021.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the foundation had taken a number of steps to alleviate any potential fundraising problems, though he wasn’t aware of whether the White House had spoken to the foundation about that.

“Certainly the foundation was interested in living up to the very high standard that the president himself established,” he said.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama had considered two other states, Hawaii, where Obama was born, and New York, where he graduated from college. They settled on the University of Chicago, in the city where he launched his political career and met his wife, and they started their family.

“All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago,” Obama said in a statement. “That’s where I was able to apply that early idealism to try to work in communities in public service. That’s where I met my wife. That’s where my children were born.”

In the last 24 hours surrounding the announcement, at least three emails were sent to previous Obama supporters about the library. “Over the next two years, you and I have the unique opportunity to help lay the groundwork for the foundation while the president is still in office,” said one from former senior adviser David Axelrod.

Coming up next from the foundation: an onslaught of phone solicitations, small-donor Internet appeals and discreet one-on-one conversations with the wealthiest of donors.

Foundation officials say they won’t accept donations from organizations that aren’t nonprofits, from individuals who are foreign nationals or from federal lobbyists.

James “Skip” Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, who played an influential role in the creation of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, said most library donors were past supporters of presidents or those who lived in the areas where the facilities were to be built.

Under current law, there are no fundraising restrictions for presidential libraries. Money can be raised while the president is still in office and contributors don’t need to be disclosed.

Obama’s foundation has pledged to release the names of those who contribute more than $200 on its website on a quarterly basis, though only with donation ranges and no further identifying information.

Since the foundation was created last year, several wealthy supporters have donated a total of roughly $3 million to $6 million. Many of them raised money for Obama during one of his campaigns or were appointed by him to various boards.

For years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have considered whether presidential libraries should be required to disclose their donors. A pair of bipartisan bills is pending that would require the disclosure of contributions of more than $200 in an online searchable and downloadable format.

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said his bill would “bring sunlight to the presidential library fundraising process, helping to eliminate even the appearance of impropriety.”

As a senator and a candidate for president, Obama backed the disclosure of contributors and bundlers to presidential foundations.

Government watchdog groups say his foundation’s current disclosures don’t go far enough.

“It will be critically important that President Obama and his staff be completely transparent about their fundraising for the library over the next 19 months,” said Chris Gates, president of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness. “The public has a right to know who is contributing to the library and what interests they may have with the federal government while he’s still in office.”

Thirteen presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration are scattered across the nation, from Boston (John F. Kennedy) to Yorba Linda, Calif. (Richard Nixon).

Ronald Reagan’s library in Simi Valley, Calif., had been the most popular, with about 400,000 visitors annually. But the newest library, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, drew nearly 500,000 people last year, its first full year.

Obama’s library might very well surpass those numbers because of his historic tenure as the first African-American president in the United States.

Lesley Clark contributed to this article.