Obama Makes It Harder to See the Arc of History BendRoundup
tags: presidential libraries, archives, Obama, public records
John Gans is director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. He served as chief speechwriter at the Defense Department until January 2017.
In July 2012, I was walking with a fellow doctoral student out of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library into the muggy summer air of Little Rock, Arkansas, when we began talking about the challenges of historical research on modern presidents like Barack Obama, then running for reelection. With millions of emails sent in modern administrations and severe classification limits, it would not be easy to find the history in his presidential library. Still, we both agreed on one upside: Chicago, the presumed location Obama’s center, would be far less humid in the summer.
Unfortunately, though right about the weather, we were wrong on the research. The former president’s foundation and the National Archives have announced that Obama’s presidential center will not host a working research facility or even host his White House’s papers but instead host the papers only digitally. Made on the promise of online access’s efficiency and accessibility, this disappointing decision will instead make research into the 44th presidency much harder and, unfortunately, far less helpful for those trying to understand today’s chaotic politics.
None of that is easy to write. Since that summer day in Little Rock, I finished my dissertation and went on to work for President Obama as a political appointee and speechwriter at the Defense Department. Sitting at the Pentagon, I saw one piece of the historical puzzle of a foreign policy I was proud to put words to, but I also looked forward to searching for the other pieces in the archives including for a forthcoming book on the history of the National Security Council. As a result, I took every opportunity to prod White House colleagues to keep their files organized for historians.