CHICAGO — Even before Barack Obama left the White House, plans to build his presidential center in Jackson Park were met with resistance as nearby residents feared the center’s very existence would drive up costs in an area the former president says he wants to uplift.
While the economic benefits of the Obama Presidential Center remain in question, what has become clear is that the Barack Obama Foundation’s top staffers are commanding high-end salaries that are not only out of sync with the more modest pay earned by those living in the surrounding neighborhoods but also exceed salaries for counterparts at other presidential foundations.
A Chicago Tribune review of annual tax filings shows the median pay for the 10 highest-paid employees from 2017 through 2020 at the Obama Foundation is just shy of $344,000.
During the same period, the median salary for the 10 highest-paid employees at George W. Bush’s foundation, which is based in Dallas, was $258,000, filings show, while it was $274,000 at the Clinton Foundation, which has offices in both New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas. The foundations for former President Ronald Reagan, located outside of Los Angeles, and Jimmy Carter, in Atlanta, paid their top staffers around $250,000 annually, tax filings show.
The foundations for former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon have smaller revenues and expenses and, in turn, fewer than 10 top-paid executives, according to records the foundations must file with the IRS to maintain their statuses as nonprofits.
Obama Foundation officials defended the salaries as the natural outgrowth of a blossoming enterprise that aims to attract top talent to ensure Chicago’s next biggest cultural institution is a success.
Experts are split. Some argue the top staffers deserve competitive salaries, which they’d likely earn in the private sector, and that many eschewed that high pay when they worked in government. But another expert said that given the themes of Obama’s political career and the local pushback the center has received, Obama’s foundation should put more donor dollars toward public programming than pay.
Higher-than-average pay for top staffers is particularly fraught for a center being built in a neighborhood where two-thirds of households report incomes below $50,000 and where neighbors have voiced concerns that building the center will price them out and take over a portion of a historic public park.
What’s more, in the first few years of its existence, the Obama Foundation’s top salaries have outpaced the top salaries at some of Chicago’s more established institutions, including the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, records show, while at the same time some of its early programming expenses have slowed.
Brenda Nelms, co-president of Jackson Park Watch, said she sees “a great contrast” between the salaries of Obama Foundation officials and those living in nearby neighborhoods. The group, founded by Hyde Park residents, has been critical of the presidential center’s impact on the park and its surroundings.
“Most of the population there and in South Shore are not anywhere near — this is 10, 15 times what anybody makes. So having those numbers out there I think contributes to seeing the Obama initiative as elitist and removed from the reality of the people on the ground in the neighborhoods,” Nelms said.
Nelms said she hopes Obama Presidential Center programming will be as transformative as what has been promised, but, so far, the focus has been more on “razzmatazz,” she said.
“What’s not clear is the extent to which their programming — when it gets going — (is) going to benefit the local community,” Nelms said.
The Tribune reviewed several years of annual tax forms filed with the IRS by nine presidential foundations and five major cultural institutions in Chicago. The data was taken from forms for the years 2017 through 2020, though filings from 2020 for some foundations and institutions were not available.
The review included overall spending for all listed officers, directors, trustees, key employees and those who are the highest compensated, as well as individual compensation for those employees. The comparison also included median pay between foundations for the top 10 highest-earning individuals recorded in those forms. It also tallied the total spending on officers and other top employees as a percentage of its overall spending each year, as well as its spending on programming as a percentage of total expenditures.
According to the tax filings, the Obama Foundation from 2017 through 2020 spent nearly $14.4 million on compensation for top executives, more than the eight other presidential foundations the Tribune examined. The next closest was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which spent $12.3 million during the same four-year period. The George W. Bush Foundation spent about $10.6 million and the Clinton Foundation spent nearly $8.9 million during that time, records show. Four foundations — those tied to George H.W. Bush, Johnson, Ford and Nixon — had not yet filed 2020 forms, but reports from previous years showed total salaries much lower than those for Obama’s foundation.
Obama Foundation spokeswoman Courtney Williams defended the pay, saying in an email that the foundation “used external compensation consultants to ensure we are living up to our values of stewardship while also attracting the best talent in a competitive market to bring forward our mission.” A majority of the foundation’s staff is currently working out of offices in Hyde Park. There is also an office in Washington, D.C., she said.
In addition, Williams noted the foundation had accomplished something few other cultural organizations had: a diverse executive suite. She said, “35% of our leadership team identifies as people of color … 45% are women.”
Several of the top foundation leaders worked with Obama in the White House, including David Simas, who in 2020 made $608,066 as the foundation’s CEO, and Michael Strautmanis, who was White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett’s chief of staff and who in 2020 made $331,851 as the foundation’s chief engagement officer. Jarrett herself became the foundation’s CEO in 2021. The $592,000 she made that year wasn’t included in the Tribune’s analysis.
Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, where George W. Bush’s presidential library is located, said he is “not bothered by the fact that there are people who worked with and had long-term relationships with the former president who are now cashing in, in a sense, because it shows they’re still committed to the mission. Each of these people could command more in the private market.”
Many started off as campaign staffers, “eating cold chicken dinners in Iowa for 20 years as they worked up the governmental food chain,” said Engel, a professor of history at SMU. “They deserve a little bit of payback for the fact that they, at every step along the way, took less money than they could have otherwise made.”
Obama Foundation officials have also argued the presidential center is a different undertaking: “There are no cultural institutions nor presidential libraries that are doing work comparable to that of the Foundation — building a presidential center and historic collection of artifacts, creating a community gathering space, and spurring economic development — all within a complex metropolitan area,” Williams said.
That approach is what has rankled some living near the presidential center site in Jackson Park. Early on, a coalition of activists pushed for a community benefits agreement that promised new jobs, improved schools and affordable housing guarantees in neighborhoods surrounding the center. The foundation did not sign such an agreement but did pledge to dedicate a minimum number of construction hours to Chicago residents and to contract with minority-owned vendors.
The opposition and other issues have slowed things down considerably. The first few years were spent fighting through federal approvals and court challenges, delays that have set the stage for the center to set a modern record for longest span between the end of a presidency and the completion of the corresponding presidential museum, The Wall Street Journal reported.
But with construction now underway, the foundation says it is on track to meeting its promises. Longer term, foundation officials have predicted the estimated 700,000 annual visitors the center will bring will spur economic development nearby, and the city has rolled out a suite of housing protections for neighbors in Woodlawn.
Kirsten Grønbjerg, a professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs who focuses on nonprofit and public sector relationships, said younger nonprofits typically spend a higher percentage of their expenses building up their infrastructure and that the high median salaries for top executives should attract those who are “highly skilled, have a lot of visibility and have extensive networks and contacts.”
But Anthony Clark, a former congressional staffer who wrote a book about presidential libraries titled “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies,” said that many presidential foundations are soft places for some former staffers to land.
“I would hope that between the most important themes of the Obama Administration and the great difficulty the Obama Foundation has had in dealing with local pushback and community demands, its leaders would take greater care with stewarding the money so many entrusted to them than to dedicate such an astonishingly high percentage toward eye-popping staff salaries,” Clark said in an emailed response.
In addition to executive pay surpassing other presidential foundations, overall salaries for Obama Foundation executives also outpace payments made to leaders at Chicago institutions, including the neighboring Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, records show.
Only the Art Institute of Chicago, which runs both a museum and school, paid more. But there, high pay for executives became a bone of contention during unionization efforts earlier this year.
Local cultural institutions included in the Tribune’s analysis have been around for decades, with some — like the Field Museum and the Art Institute — established more than a century ago. That gave them time to build up substantial endowments and loyal donors, as well as expensive upkeep that can take up a significant share of spending that overshadows salaries, Grønbjerg pointed out.
As pay has stayed high, recent expenditures on programming has dipped in the past year, the records show.
The Obama Foundation spent just over two-thirds of its expenses on programming in 2018, the fourth-lowest share of the 14 organizations the Tribune examined. The next year, that number dipped to 61% and then fell to 54.6% in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The foundation’s overall mission is to train the next generation of civic leaders. The costs of carrying out that mission are part of how much it spends on programming and include the Obama Scholars program, which covers living and tuition costs for qualified students from the University of Chicago, where Obama taught, and Columbia University in New York City, where Obama graduated from college.
The two-year unpaid Obama Foundation Fellowship offers training, coaching and mentorship for cohorts of “civic innovators” from around the world. The Obama Foundation Leaders program — active in Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Europe — offers a six-month, nonresidential leadership development program that seeks to build “a community of changemakers from across the globe.” Obama is of Kenyan descent and lived in the Asia-Pacific region as a youth.
Grants to community organizations have also been included but so have the costs of digitizing records from the president’s time in office and paying the Chicago Park District to replace a running track affected by construction.
Williams said the foundation will continue to build on existing programming before the center’s doors open, including the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, “which supports boys and young men of color; and our work with Emerald South to help build community wealth around the Center.”
COVID-19 also “put a natural pause on our in-person programming as we shifted to virtual events,” Williams said, but the foundation’s work “continues to scale in reach and impact.”
It’s common for new nonprofits to have a lower share of spending on things like programming, according to Grønbjerg. Engel said he fully expects programming to pick up once the presidential center is open to the public.
But Clark said what the Obama Foundation has spent so far suggests it “is shaping up to be much more like those of Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes — long on promoting the president’s legacy and current party politics, short on education and public service.”
The Reagan Foundation, for instance, reported it spent 71% on programming in its 2020 filing. But that included hosting events with “leading voices in the conservative movement” and that “advance the legacy” of the former president, according to its 2020 filing. Recent guests for Reagan Foundation events have included prominent Republicans such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Vice President Mike Pence, and U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Matt Gaetz, and a former spokesman for ex-President Donald Trump, Sean Spicer.
While Engel agreed Nixon’s foundation “doesn’t do as much programming,” he said George W. Bush’s foundation is focused on educating “more people to do social work and policy work.”
Both Clark and Engel pointed to former President Jimmy Carter’s foundation as a gold standard in terms of programming that benefits the public.
For the past four years, on average, the Carter Center has dedicated $70 million annually to the eradication of communicable diseases and another $24 million on election monitoring around the world. In 2020, it reported it spent more than 81% of its expenses on programming.
“God doesn’t want us all to be saints, because that’s impractical,” Engel said. “Carter has set a moral bar that is almost impossible for anyone to try to match.”