Government Spending

The High Price Tag of the Obama Library

Legislators in broke Illinois are considering approving $100 million for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.


Obama! Reading!
White House

To say that California is in better fiscal condition than Illinois is like saying the captain of the Exxon Valdez grades out higher than the guy at the helm of the Titanic. Disasters come in different doses. One study found that California ranks 46th in the health of its state government finances, with Illinois limping in at 48th place.

So imagine the surprise in the Land of Lincoln to learn that California Gov. Jerry Brown plans to create a rainy-day fund for future downturns. He's expecting large budget surpluses, which he wants to use to restore long-term fiscal health rather than squander on short-term demands.

In Illinois, there is no danger that extra cash will be squandered, because there is no extra cash. But state legislators know you can't be too careful. So they are considering approving $100 million for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. Without that promise, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan fears, the president might put his monument somewhere else—Hawaii or New York or maybe Nairobi.

Without that promise, of course, Illinois would also save $100 million. A government that already spends and promises well beyond its means has no business taking on any new obligation it can possibly avoid. But if Illinois lawmakers were susceptible to logic or arithmetic, the state would not be insolvent to begin with.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel predicts the library "would be a great economic boom and a tourism boom for the city of Chicago." Madigan agrees, adding, "We did it for Abraham Lincoln here in Springfield. We can do it for Barack Obama in Chicago."

One of the big differences between the two is that Lincoln was not a prodigious fundraiser and regrettably was unavailable to solicit donations for his library. Obama, by contrast, shook $1.1 billion out of the trees in 2012, more than any presidential candidate in history. Come January 2016, he will have even more time to ask wealthy admirers to fan him with $100 bills.

The economic boom is likely one of those mirages that politicians often sight in the distance. Emanuel's aides can provide no research to support his claim.

A presidential library may make a big difference in West Branch, Iowa, or Abilene, Kansas, which are not overflowing with other seductions. Because Chicago has an array of tourist destinations already in place—Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, Navy Pier, Millennium Park, the Field Museum and more—this one probably wouldn't attract a lot of people who wouldn't come otherwise.

The bump, if any, would be short-lived. About a half-million people visited the Bill Clinton library in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 12 months after it opened in November 2004. By 2008, the flow of traffic had been nearly halved.

As presidential libraries become more numerous, they may hold less appeal than they once did. The George W. Bush library in Dallas had some 60,000 fewer visitors in its first year than Clinton's did in its first year.

Attendance in all of 2013 at the George H.W. Bush site in College Station, Texas, was 130,000. Wrigley Field normally pulls in that many people in a four-game homestand.

"In Chicago, I would expect the largest single population of visitors to be local, so the net economic impact is close to zero," University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson told me. Sure, every schoolkid in the metropolitan area might make a field trip there. If so, it would be a field trip diverted from some other local institution.

Texas ought to be the model for attracting presidential libraries, since it has more than any other state (one for each Bush and another for Lyndon B. Johnson). How much funding has the state government provided to those institutions? Not a penny.

It's always possible that Obama will choose some other city for his library. But his alternatives are not that great. Honolulu? No one would fly to Hawaii just to visit a presidential library. And once they arrived in that tropical paradise, most tourists would content themselves with other pleasures as they always have.

New York? Good luck finding an affordable building lot—and good luck standing out amid everything Manhattan has to offer.

Chicago has more to offer the Obama library than the Obama library has to offer Chicago. So the state would be wise to save its money and take its chances. If the price of luring the 44th president is $100 million, let someone else pay it.

NEXT: Brickbat: Don't Go in the Woods

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  1. $100 million?

    At least the Roman aristocracy built monuments to themselves using money plundered from foreign conquests.

    1. Don’t worry, the money this govt is using will also come from plundering foreigners. We will do it with either a default on Bonds or massive devaulation of the dollar.

      1. a default on Bonds

        A default on…..James….Bond?

        1. Nobody defaults on 007.

          1. 007 defaults on you.

        2. Barry. Keep track of your singulars and plural.

  2. I submit: The Barack Obama Presidential library and Choom Room with Fried Chicken and Waffles!

    1. Racist. But DELICIOUS!


  3. Dounds cheap if it gets the sonofabitch to retire.

  4. An even bigger problem then the money is that these Presidential Libraries get to control the information release of Presidential documents.

    Instead Presidential documents which are the Peoples documents should be released immediately so we can see what the President has done in our name. Not dribble it out in a way to make the President look good.

    P.S. I do like the way that the Clinton Library looks like a mobile home on blocks, seems appropriate.

  5. The Lightworker has plenty of cash sitting in OFA – pay for your own Monument to Transparency. I am already watching my property and income taxes rise, without more $ going to a vanity project.

  6. “half a million” “130,000” WhoTF are these people who travel to visit Presidential libraries?? I can’t think of a more unappealing tourist destination…especially a contemporary President. I’d sooner check out the giant ball of string 5 miles up the road.

    1. “””Hey kids, we have a choice, either we visit the Presidential Library or we visit the largest cat hairball in the world.”””

      “”Hairball, hairball, hairball, !!!!!!!!!!

      1. Having been to the Corn Palace, I can assure you….a Presidential library almost sounds intrguing….

        1. The interesting thing is that both elicit the same response. “Hmmm… how did they do that?”

    2. We stopped at the Clinton library because we were driving through Little Rock anyway. You could go in the front door for free, but they wanted $35/person to look at anything. So we said fuck it and left. Screw monuments to America’s royalty anyway.

      1. For $35 it better have a waterslide.

        1. Or a cigar room…

    3. I would think some presidential libraries interest groups of people: FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan.

      But mostly, they are convenient places for researchers. Of course, they would be more convenient if they were all at the National Archives.

    4. I don’t know.. What is the Sci-Fi selection like? And the lending policies? Do they accept my local library card? Good Blu-Ray selection?

      The right answers could get me interested in visiting.

      1. Crap. Byzantine. No. None.

        Probably not the right answers.

  7. How interesting would the library be if all the documents are either sealed or redacted?

    1. Once a week they will have a raffle. Winner gets to call in a drone strike on the neighbor of his choice.

  8. It would be cheaper and more authentic just to have Jay Carney standing in an empty room saying “I can’t comment”.

  9. How about a website with non-redacted text search of every presidential record, document, communication, etc…?

    Sebelius could be in charge of it.

    1. It would cost 10x as much.

      Let’s do it!

  10. Clinton’s library had a green roof. I wonder what environmental nincompoopery Obama’s will contain?

  11. “We did it for Abraham Lincoln here in Springfield. We can do it for Barack Obama in Chicago.”

    And I can’t help notice that Abraham Lincoln is a white guy. We all know why you’re really opposed to the $100 million grant.

  12. I went to the LBJ library I’m Austin when my parents were in town. It was a lot better than expected, but my parents were alive for Kennedy, Vietnam, etc. Also, I live here and it took 8 years for me to go, never would have traveled for it.

  13. The main wings will have full-size models of Predator drones, Goldman Sachs sponsored TARP displays, NSA/CIA/FBI Obama Global Battlefield War on Terror displays, and memorials for all the Obama wars of choice and civilian murders. A desk drawer in a closet will be dedicated to his “presidential” papers.

  14. $100 million?
    I thought Playboy subscription is much cheaper…

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