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Political Mercury

Obama Presidential Center should establish Iowa satellite branch

5/3/2023

Hawaii is Barry Obama’s home state, and Illinois is Senator Barack Obama’s home state, but Iowa is President Obama’s home state.

One of the last questions I asked President Barack Obama during an interview in his first term was this: Would he consider locating his presidential library and museum in Iowa?

It’s not a silly or throwaway question, and the president answered it with great seriousness, giving it that distinctive Obama ponderous pause before his easy reach for penetrating eloquence, because it is in our state, within our early-nominating vetting, that Barack Obama rapidly matured into the nominee, and, eventually, the leader of the free world. The best-selling first volume of his memoirs features Iowa prominently.

“It is true that I feel sometimes like Iowa is a second home,” Obama said in that 2011 interview. “Chicago and Honolulu might have some pretty strong claims for a library, but that’s not what I’m spending time thinking about now. I can tell you this: When I go back to Iowa, it always makes me feel good. It’s got wonderful people. There’s a great community spirit. People are civic-minded. Maybe I’m just biased because I’m from the Midwest and I was raised by Midwesterners, but there’s something about the people of Iowa that always cheers me up, and I’m so glad that I was able to spend a couple of days with all of you this past week.”

As the first-in-the nation Democratic presidential nominating caucuses have a threadbare connection to the future political calendar, we owe it to ourselves as Iowans, in these very, very different times, to recall what we made possible — rural and urban Iowans, from Iowa City and Des Moines to a sweep of rural counties along the Mississippi and across Highway 30.

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Barack Obama’s presidency is as much a product of Iowa as it is Illinois, his native Hawaii, Columbia and Harvard universities.

An inspiring Obama Presidential Center is being constructed in the south side of Chicago. The architecture is cosmically cool, and I hope my 82-year-old mother, the former publisher of the Carroll Times Herald, remains in good health to see it. Our newspaper was the first in Iowa to endorse Obama for the presidency — and the call was as much Mom’s as mine.

The brilliance of the Chicago plan considered, the Obama Foundation should construct an annex, an adjunct center, a satellite location, if you will, with a museum to chronicle his ascendency here in 2008, and commemorate the half-century of the Iowa presidential caucuses, both Republican and Democrat.

What’s more, the center could work to elevate rural America, a reach of the nation that gave Obama’s presidency that first proof of life, breaths of possibility.

Where should it go? 

The Obama Foundation could put out a request for proposal for counties and cities in Iowa to make their cases.

I’d like to see it go in a rural area, but, sadly, even the mention of the possibility of an Obama-connected center in some parts of an increasingly intolerant Iowa would generate deal-killing and dangerous conspiracy theories.

It was not always so.

On a wintry night in 2007, Obama delivered one of his best speeches in Iowa. People remember the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines. Indeed, Obama was brilliant on that Des Moines stage.

But the best Obama moment I witnessed in Iowa came in Audubon.

The lines at the school in this western-Iowa town snaked around the old school building.

An audience member, referring to Bill Clinton’s infamous explanation of past marijuana use, asked Obama in the question-and-answer session, if he had smoked pot, and, in fact, inhaled.

“That was the point,” Obama said, bringing the house down, and earning trust and converts in quicksilver speed.

But our collective reality has given way to tribal division. If an Obama center were proposed — with tens of millions of dollars in economic incentives in the balance — many cities in Iowa would strangle the vision in zoning boards.

But there are places in Iowa that would embrace it.

Ames makes sense with a central location, Iowa State University. Ottumwa needs something. Waterloo has industry and diversity. Denison and Storm Lake in western Iowa, immigrant-rich cities, are the state’s future.

A 50-year run with the responsibility of vetting presidential candidates deserves celebration, an Iowa caucuses museum and center — and it should be tied to the candidate who found his presidential footing here, launching an historic campaign for the Oval Office. ♦

Douglas Burns of Carroll is fourth-generation journalist and founder of Mercury Boost, a marketing and public relations company.

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