How Ronald Reagan Is Beating Barack Obama in the Race To Name Things After Former Presidents

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Ronald Reagan Is Beating Barack Obama in the Race to Name Things After Former Presidents From Left: George Rose/Getty; Sean Gallup/Getty

Naming buildings, schools and streets after former presidents seems like a simple enough way to show respect and say thanks for years of service to the country. For instance, you have New York's JFK International Airport, Reagan National in Washington D.C. and, it seems, everything in the Dallas and Houston areas is named after a Bush—airports, turnpikes, schools and parks all carry a Bush moniker. Even the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is now officially dubbed the George Bush Center for Intelligence.

Good luck with the easy part, says Stanley Chang.

Six years ago, as a member of the Honolulu City Council, Chang offered up what he assumed would be a slam dunk: He wanted to rename a stretch of oceanfront on Oahu, a favorite body surfing area called Sandy Beach Park, for Barack Obama, the only U.S. president born in Hawaii. The beach was a boyhood hangout of Obama's. He even returned during an August 2008 respite from his first campaign for the White House, producing shirtless photos of the future POTUS in action for an Obama-thirsty internet.

The naming campaign, though, didn't work out as hoped. Public reaction was swift and damning, with local residents assailing the plan as lacking "historical and cultural sensitivity," according to the statement Chang and his co-sponsor released when they pulled their three-day-old proposal. In an interview with Newsweek last month, Chang offered a different explanation, citing the the beach's tricky waves, which have caused major injuries in the past: "It's a very dangerous beach to go body surfing if you're inexperienced, so there was a lot of concern that tourists who might not otherwise know about the beach would try it and, you know, break their necks."

Still, three years after Obama's presidency ended, there's not a school, street or even a park bench in Hawaii named after him—and supporters like Chang are dismayed at the lack of organized traction in the naming game. After all, Obama was a popular two-term president with a Gallup approval rating of 59 percent when he left office. Only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had a higher final poll. So it is puzzling that efforts to honor Obama have been slow to catch on and often run into surprising resistance.

It's not that Obama has gone entirely unrecognized—there are about 20 schools and 20 roads named after him around the U.S., and his adopted state of Illinois has turned his birthday, August 4, into a commemorative holiday. But in contrast with Reagan, there is no organized effort by progressives to canonize Obama's legacy. In San Jose, California, for instance, former Obama campaign volunteer Alex Shoor has struggled for more than two years to persuade the city to take a vote on renaming Almaden Boulevard for the 44th president who twice won the county with 70 percent of voters—even though there's an Almaden Avenue a few blocks away so it's not as if anyone could object because the original name would disappear.

One problem with the Obama naming campaign: little clout. "It's a very small grassroots effort," Shoor says. "We haven't heard from anyone or gotten any help on this."

By contrast, efforts to transform Ronald Reagan from politician to American icon by slapping his name everywhere began in earnest even before the 40th president left office and has for decades been a formal cause of the small-government advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project's lofty goal is to get something—anything—named for Reagan in all 3,141 or so counties in the U.S., with ATR founder Grover Norquist's more modest aim being to at least achieve parity for Reagan with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., who have the most of any modern American leaders. Right now, Norquist says, they're at about 150 sites in the U.S. named for Reagan; there are more than 800 each for Kennedy and King.

Unfortunately for Obama, he doesn't have a Grover Norquist.

Cementing a place in history

Why the rumpus? Namings matter to solidifying a president's legacy, experts say, because they prompt discussion and convey an official seal of approval. The fact that Washington National Airport was renamed for Reagan in 1998 granted a permanent affirmation of the 40th president as a man of greatness. "In the Reagan example, you have people actively building the Reagan legacy and that has a real impact on how people of the future think about him," says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University law professor who writes extensively on the power of political branding.

Norquist's logic is similar: "You have 100,000 conversations a year with kids saying to parents, 'Why is it Reagan airport?' It creates a series of teaching moments that convey to young people that this person must be important."

POLITICO co-founder John Harris echoed admiration for the right's canonization of Reagan and the left's failure to do so for Obama in an essay last summer. "A generation of conservatives recognized that history is an instrument of power, and built a virtual industry dedicated to celebrating Reagan's legacy and renaming things in his honor," Harris wrote. "Democrats, by contrast, during the same time often have become the Hannibal Lecter party—eating their party's presidential legacies with fava beans and a nice Chianti."

Indeed, Norquist's efforts are indefatigable and unparalleled in modern times. The most significant site named for Bill Clinton is the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington; there's just one road in the U.S. named for him in his birthplace of Hope, Arkansas, as well as one in, of all places, Kosovo. Highlights for George H.W. Bush include the CIA building and the Houston airport. His son, George W. Bush, has elementary schools in California, Washington State and Texas in his portfolio.

To be sure, the pace of namings for Reagan has slowed since the 1990s and some efforts—such as one to get a mountain named for Reagan in the Las Vegas area—have been stymied by Democrats who object to the 40th president's record on such topics as welfare. But successes small and big still pop up, thanks to Norquist and others, from the renaming of an Internal Revenue Service building in Wichita, Kansas, in 2016, to the installation of a Reagan statue at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin last November to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Florida alone now has six roads dedicated to Reagan.

What's more, every year in the run-up to Reagan's birthday, February 6, the Legacy Project sends reminders to governors to issue proclamations dubbing it Ronald Reagan Day. "We expect about 40 this year again," Norquist told Newsweek. "Right now, 13 have come in already a little ahead of schedule. We send a note out to each of the governors and say, 'You might want to do this. You did it last year or the year before, the governor before you did it,' with suggestions on wordings for their population. They put them out, and they often get us a copy, which is very nice."

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The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is shown February 26, 2004 in Simi Valley, California, the day National Security Advisor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, lectured at the site as part of the "Reagan Lecture" series sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. David McNew/Getty

The obstacles for Obama

Obama biographer David Garrow says Obama may be as significant and iconic a figure on the left as Reagan was on the right, but there are practical differences in their post-presidencies. Reagan's vice president succeeded him, which secured Reagan's legacy and freed up supporters like Norquist to focus on these sorts of naming efforts, Garrow says.

Obama, on the other hand, has been followed by explicit efforts by Republican President Donald Trump to undo just about every accomplishment, from the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear deal all the way down to what is classified as a vegetable in public school cafeterias. "If Hillary had won, there would've been more opportunity for Obama alumni to do that sort of legacy enhancement," Garrow says. "Instead, the Obama alumni have ended up unexpectedly playing defense."

Norquist agrees, pointing out that Reagan's public life ended when he left office and then announced he suffered from Alzheimer's. But Obama may still have decades of possible relevance ahead of him. "It's not like he had a political life and now Republicans and Democrats both look back and take stock and say, 'We should commemorate that,'" Norquist says.

Still, the notion that namings are premature if a politician's public service is not yet complete doesn't always hold up. In November, for instance, a pair of Republican state senators in Oklahoma filed a measure to rename a 4-mile segment of the famed Route 66 for President Donald Trump in order to honor "a man who will no doubt be known in our nation's history as one of our most famous presidents." Similarly, the airport in Little Rock, Arkansas, was renamed Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in 2012 in honor of that state's former governor and first lady while she was Secretary of State and four years before she ran again for the presidency.

In Obama's case, another thing that hasn't helped is the fact that the traditional linchpin of a president's legacy, the library, has been mired in controversy and confusion. By this point in the post-presidencies of Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes, those landmarks had opened to huge fanfare. Those events served as a launchpad for a certain level of hagiography necessary to bolster a former president's transition between the realms of politics and history. It is typically the final major public event honoring a former president while he's alive.

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Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Presidential Center design envisions three buildings, a museum, library and forum. Scott Olson/Getty

Yet Obama opted for a new and different model, one that eschews the formal relationship with the National Archives of other presidential libraries so his site can engage in advocacy work. Instead, it will operate independently as a 19-acre Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. (Rather than house actual presidential records, the center plans to pay to digitize 30 million pages of Obama's unclassified papers and make them available online.) In addition, Obama has run into years of harsh headlines in the local Chicago media over opposition to the campus being built in Jackson Park as well as questions over the displacement of affordable housing. The center, mired in litigation, has yet to schedule a date to break ground.

In Reaganland, by contrast, Norquist says: "If somebody calls and says, 'we're thinking of doing this,' we can certainly say we know some of the rules, so we can give them some advice."

It's unclear whether Obama cares about this side of the legacy-building process—neither anyone from the Obama Foundation nor any top-level former Obama aides returned calls or emails seeking comment for this report. Obama himself has stayed remarkably low-profile since he left office, making few public remarks or lamenting the Trump dismantling of his work. He (unlike his best-selling author wife) has yet to publish a memoir. Yes, he and Michelle formed a production company, Higher Ground, to create content for Netflix. But some Democrats have expressed frustration that he's seen chilling with wealthy friends as opposed to defending his legacy. "I don't want to be too harsh, but with Barack having gone the hanging-out-with-Richard-Branson route, he has chosen the Jerry Ford option rather than Jimmy Carter option of a post-presidency," Garrow says.

Torres-Spelliscy says she's also surprised by the lack of Obama savvy in his post-presidency, given how clever and effective the Obama camp was in creating iconography like the rising-sun logo and "Hope" posters to help get him elected. "I have no idea whether he liked being branded or not, but a lot of that went away when he started governing," she says. "It definitely died down once he was in office. It's really possible he just doesn't care."


Despite the lack of help from the Obama camp, of course, branding has happened anyway in some intriguing places. In 2017, a school named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis was renamed for Obama in Jackson, Mississippi, and in 2018, J.E.B. Stuart Elementary in Richmond, Virginia, became Obama Elementary in a similar effort to remove honors for pro-slavery figures of the Civil War. In some cases, there is equity in the Obama name that can help revive a troubled institution such as the Timbuktu Academy, a low-performing charter school in Detroit which changed its name last summer to the Barack Obama Leadership Academy. "We just thought that by changing the name, we could have a new focus and a chance to improve on our academics as a result of it," school founder Bernard Parker says.

And once in a while, there has been a popular groundswell, although perhaps not of the dignified historical sort. A petition that has drawn more than 450,000 signatures urged New York City to rename the block of Fifth Avenue that passes Trump Tower as President Barack H. Obama Avenue just to troll the current White House occupant, but Democratic leaders in New York said it would be a petty move, unbecoming of Obama's legacy. "The Obamas epitomize class, dedication to public service and respect for the Oval Office," City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in August.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, since that beach idea came and went like a riptide in 2014, politicians have considered other suggestions—an airport, a birthday commemoration and a scenic overlook where Obama scattered his mother's ashes, for instance. But still, there is nothing bearing his name in his birth state. The closest Obama has as a tribute on the island is a shaved ice treat with lemon, lime, cherry and passion guava syrup dubbed the "Snowbama," which he enjoyed on his presidential vacations there.

But Chang has not given up his Obama-naming dream. He's now a state senator who last month introduced a measure to create a series of historical markers on sites of importance in Obama's Hawaii life, from the apartment building where he lived with his late grandmother to the Baskin-Robbins where he scooped ice cream as a summer job to, yes, Sandy Beach where he surfed.

"It would give visitors to our islands and local residents a chance to see the places that were in his life," Chang said. "I hope it'll pass and we'll have something tangible to commemorate his upbringing here."

Steve Friess is a longtime freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveFriess.

Correction: 2/06/2020, 1:24 p.m. ET: This article has been corrected to say that the date Washington National Airport was renamed for President Ronald Reagan was 1998, not 1997.