The media continues to treat former President Barack Obama as a champion of transparency, but his presidential library is looking like a huge bait-and-switch. Obama raised hundreds of millions for a grandiose library in south Chicago – except that it was revealed two years ago that it wouldn’t actually be a library. At the end of the Obama administration, 30 million pages of documents from his presidency were shipped to a former retail store near Chicago. Come to find out, the Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, will control the official records of his time in office, rather than the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers all other presidential libraries. Rather than opening the files to the public and researchers, the Obama Foundation will eventually digitize the records. This could result in even worse delays than George W. Bush sought to finagle. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow warned, “The absence of a true Obama presidential library will have the effect of discouraging serious and potentially critical research into the Obama presidency.”
There are plenty of reasons to expect excessive secrecy from both Trump and from Biden, who kept his Senate records locked up during his presidential run. In 2011, Biden was treated like a civic saint when he donated 1,875 boxes of documents from his U.S. Senate career to the University of Delaware. The National Endowment for Humanities gave a grant to help curate the collection, and the deal between Biden and the library was that the documents would remain sealed until “two years after Biden retires from public office.” Biden retired as Vice President in January 2017. Instead of releasing the information to the public, the library announced just before Biden launched his presidential campaign that secrecy would continue until two years after Biden “retires from public life.” Biden in 2019 justified keeping all his Senate records locked up during the campaign because “the idea that they would all be made public in the fact while I was running for public office, they could be really taken out of context.” It is unknown whether Biden’s Senate records contained any bombshells as explosive as his son Hunter’s laptop (which the media raced to defuse before Election Day).
Prerogatives for perpetual presidential secrecy are more akin to royalty than to a republic. Presidential libraries, which cost taxpayers $100 million a year, become lavish taxpayer-funded mausoleums where public records are mostly buried in perpetuity. As New York University history professor Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in 2015, “Why should each president get his own library? Multiple libraries are wasteful… And they’re undemocratic, because they allow our presidents – not the people who elected them – to define their legacies.” Zimmerman recommended putting all presidential records in a single library.