The Alarming Math Behind Barack Obama’s Library

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US President Barack Obama holds up copie
Books are just the beginning.Photo: SAUL LOEB/2010 AFP

Barack Obama has more than 500 days left in office, but planning for his presidential library and foundation is already well under way. The go-team includes members of the White House staff; a McKinsey consultant; a spate of high-profile informal advisors, among them Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, and Vinod Khosla; and a “vision committee.” And they are planning on raising and deploying a giant boatload of cash to help burnish Obama’s legacy and provide him with a post-presidential purpose. How big a boatload? Well, my fellow Americans, let me be clear: a billion-dollar boatload. 

The New York Times has a great, dishy look at the hush-hush plan:

The $1 billion — double what George W. Bush raised for his library and its various programs — would be used for what one adviser called a “digital-first” presidential library loaded with modern technologies, and to establish a foundation with a worldwide reach.

Supporters have urged Mr. Obama to avoid the mistake made by Bill Clinton, whose associates raised just enough money to build his library in Little Rock, Ark., forcing Mr. Clinton to pursue high-dollar donors for years to come. Including construction costs, Mr. Obama’s associates set a goal of raising at least $800 million — enough money, they say, to avoid never-ending fund-raising. One top adviser said that $800 million was a floor rather than a ceiling….

In their conversations with Mr. Obama and his advisers, people from Silicon Valley and Hollywood are pressing for a heavy reliance on cutting-edge technology in the library that would help spread the story of Mr. Obama’s presidency across the globe. Ideally, one adviser said, a person in Kenya could put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and be transported to Mr. Obama’s 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia.

It is, of course, far too early to say how much money will be raised for Obama’s foundation, library, and/or museum. It is far too early to tell how that money will get divvied up, and to what end it will get spent, either.

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George W. Bush Presidential Center.Photo: Kevork Djansezian/2013 Getty Images

But presuming that billion-dollar number holds, all Americans should be alarmed about our country’s Zimbabwe-like presidential-library inflation rate. Franklin D. Roosevelt spent all of $376,000 in private money on his library in 1940. Given Obama’s reported fund-raising target, the annual, long-term presidential-library inflation rate is a terrifying 11 percent, triple the overall rate. Worse, there is evidence that it has been picking up to even more perilous heights of late. Reagan spent about $45 million on his library, George H.W. Bush a little more than $80 million, Clinton $160 million, and George W. Bush $300 million, said Anthony Clark, a former Congressional staffer who has written a book on the subject. Each successive president has roughly doubled what his predecessor spent, in other words. Obama, on the other hand, looks like he might triple it. At that rate, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky might be building our first trillion-dollar library in a few decades.

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Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Photo: David McNew/2005 Getty Images

Of course, none of this crass accounting takes into account the marked improvements in presidential libraries over the years. And they have gotten bigger and more elaborate, growing from simple repositories of papers and memorabilia to big complexes — virtual-reality goggles! — with ambitious, wide-ranging, world-changing foundations attached. “There has been a Disneyfication,” Clark said. And it is not just billionaires financing that Disneyfication. These libraries tend to be a strange mishmash of repository, theme park, and shrine, with strange public-private financing to boot. Whatever Obama ends up building, you, the taxpayers, will end up paying for it, too.