WASHINGTON -- The formal process to build a library housing President Barack Obama's presidential records and artifacts began Friday with the formation of a new foundation, launched by top supporters with Obama's blessing, that will develop and build the monument to his legacy.
The nonprofit Barack H. Obama Foundation will be led by Marty Nesbitt, a close Obama friend from Chicago, and Julianna Smoot, a former White House social secretary and top official in Obama's re-election campaign.
A vigorous competition to host the library is already underway. Hawaii, where Obama was born, and Illinois, his longtime home, have been lobbying the Obamas both publicly and privately. New York, where Obama went to college, also has expressed interest.
With so many of Obama's aides and supporters calling Chicago home, the focus has increasingly turned to the Windy City, where Obama was first elected and came into his own as a national political figure. The involvement of Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman, in forming the foundation is likely to amplify speculation that Chicago has an inside track to getting the library. The third founding member of the nonprofit's board, Kevin Poorman, is also based in Chicago and runs a company formed by Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who is now Obama's commerce secretary.
"No specific site, institution, city or state is advantaged over another at this point," Nesbitt said in an interview. "The ultimate site will be chosen based on the merits."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, said Chicago is "undeniably a natural fit" to host an Obama library and museum.
"Though we're excited to welcome the president home, we are not resting on our laurels and will put forward a competitive proposal so that his choice is an easy one," Emanuel said.
In February, the foundation will ask parties that want to host the library to make their interest known. That list will be culled and in May, the foundation will notify the groups that will be invited to submit formal, detailed proposals. The president and first lady Michelle Obama will make the final decision, and the foundation will announce it in early 2015.
"He has asked us to lead the planning and development of a library in a way that reflects his values and priorities over the course of his career in public service," Nesbitt said -- values like expanding economic opportunity, promoting peace and dignity abroad, and inspiring the ethic of American citizenship. "He picked a team of people to lead the process that he feels are close enough to him to understand that vision."
The foundation plans to hire full-time staff later this year. Although it will start fundraising right away to cover its own costs, most of the money to build the library won't be raised until after Obama leaves the White House. While Obama is still in office, the foundation won't take donations from foreign nationals, lobbyists or organizations that aren't nonprofits. It also plans to disclose all donations over $200.
The president, Mrs. Obama and White House staffers won't raise money for the foundation until Obama leaves office, the group said. Obama will be kept up to date but won't be closely involved in the screening of the site proposals.
For the communities vying for the library, much of the legwork required to put together a proposal is already complete. Hawaii officials have been working to lure the library since the 2008 Iowa caucuses -- before Obama was even elected president -- and has gently lobbied Obama's sister and close friends. At the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught law, a behind-the-scenes effort is being led by Susan Sher, a top university official and Mrs. Obama's former chief of staff.
University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer said his institution will work with the city, its residents and community leaders to draft a plan for a library in Chicago's South Side. "Such a location would reflect the personal and professional lives of the Obamas, as well as their commitments to society," he said in a statement.
In Honolulu, University of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson, who is heading a statewide campaign for the library, said Hawaii's efforts would now accelerate. "We have most of the building blocks we need, but assembling everything will take a lot of hours," he said.
Although it's not unusual for presidents to kick off the search for their library this early -- both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton started early in their second term -- the foundation will also serve as a reminder that the clock is ticking on Obama's presidency, with three years to go.
At the White House, Obama's deputy chief of staff, Alyssa Mastromonaco, has been tapped as the point person for all things related to the library. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser and Obama confidante from Chicago, also is involved.
In addition to serving as the official repository for presidential records and artifacts, the libraries often have an accompanying presidential center as a vehicle for ex-presidents to promoting policies and coordinate humanitarian efforts after leaving office. Some groups already vying for Obama's library have proposed that he build a center or institute in one location and the library in another.