by Burgess Everett · March 12, 2017
The business of honoring former President Barack Obama’s legacy is turning out to be another reminder of the nation’s bitter divide. | Getty
In the blue state of Illinois, where President Barack Obama launched his historic career, served as a senator and is widely lauded as a Chicago hometown hero, you would think proposing a holiday honoring him would be an easy call.
Instead, state Rep. Andrew Thapedi was bombarded with a stream of death threats, “venomous” emails and phone calls in the days after he introduced legislation for an Obama state holiday in Illinois.
“We’re digging a grave especially for you,” Thapedi, a Chicago Democrat, said one of the emails warned after the bill was written up in a story on Breitbart.com. “It has been a hodge-podge of responses, from one end of the spectrum to the other: joy, jubilation on one side; absolute, unadulterated venom on the other side.”
The business of honoring Obama’s legacy is turning out to be another reminder of the nation’s bitter divide, with one side eager to salute the first black president and another positioned in stark opposition.
Illinois isn’t the only place where efforts are underway to memorialize Obama, who closed out his eight-year tenure with high favorability ratings.
In California, a state senator recently proposed naming a portion of the Ventura Freeway “President Barack H. Obama Freeway,” as a way of flagging that the president had attended Occidental College in Eagle Rock in 1979. In New Jersey, the Jersey City school board agreed last fall to name a public school after Obama — but only after a political clash on the board and a series of public meetings. In January, New Albany, Indiana, renamed one of its streets “Barack Obama Way” with the mayor crediting Obama’s stimulus plans with helping the town create jobs and redevelop a 40-acre site into an industrial park.
Even if a full-fledged state holiday doesn’t happen anytime soon in Illinois, lawmakers have alternatives in the pipeline: bills to name two different highways after the president and a proposal to have an “Obama Day” without the day off from work. And, most prominently, the Obama presidential library and museum is slotted for a South Side locale, amid criticism that the cost could climb to an eye-popping $1.5 billion for building and endowment. That’s not all: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed naming a new elite Chicago high school after Obama in 2014, but the idea was torpedoed amid anger that the school was to be located on the city’s mostly white North Side.
Opposition to the accolades, of course, isn’t specific to Obama. Attempts to honor the legacies of past presidents have also faced stumbling blocks. When congressional Republicans renamed Washington National Airport as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1998, D.C.-area local leaders and congressional Democrats decried the effort. Nearly two decades later, the controversy continues to smolder — a liberal political group initiated a petition campaign in 2015 to remove Reagan’s name.
California, the state where Reagan served two terms as governor roughly a half-century ago, is still trying to pass a law creating a state holiday in his honor.
In San Francisco, an inverse honor was even attempted: A proposition was put on the ballot to rename a sewage plant after President George W. Bush, who was wildly unpopular in the area. That effort failed in 2008.
The situation is different in Illinois, a heavily Democratic state where Obama, the state’s adopted son, remains popular. It seems likely he’ll get a highway named after him — the only real question is what stretch will bear his name. And Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he would support a day commemorating Obama — though he would not agree to a state holiday that involved a day off from government work.
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Pat Brady, a former state GOP chairman, said most people in his party — at least in Illinois — wouldn’t argue with recognizing Obama.
“The reality is he’s the first African-American president in the history of the country. I think Democrat or Republican, we should take some pride in that,” Brady said, adding that while commemorative holiday or other recognitions are appropriate, having a government day off is a stretch.
A government day off in Illinois would cost $3.2 million, according to the state budget office. “The most important issue is the financial crisis here,” Brady said. “I think most people see [a debate over a day off] as: ‘Why are we talking about this now?’”
San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a California representative on the Republican National Committee, raised a more common objection to commemorations — it’s too soon.
“I don’t have any principle objections to naming the institutions” after Obama, but “I believe that privilege should really be reserved for people who have passed away,” Dhillon said. “I would take the same view on naming things after the Bush presidents, or after Clinton.’’
To give living politicians such honors, she said, is “contrary to our concept of citizen-servants.”