Robbin Cohen is executive director of the Obama Foundation, the entity charged with managing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, former President Barack Obama’s presidential library. Cohen’s large salary ($827,834 in 2017) has been the subject of controversy. Under her leadership, the Obama Foundation has also faced criticism over its allegedly illegitimate appropriation of public lands and lack of transparency.
Before coming to the Obama Foundation, Cohen was the president of the Pritzker Realty Group, an investment firm and division of PSP Capital Partners LLC founded by one of the top Obama campaign bundlers, Penny Pritzker, later U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration. Cohen also ran the Cohen Investment Group, which developed apartment buildings in Chicago.
From its very inception, the Obama Foundation and presidential library planning efforts have been described as “subsidiaries of the Pritzker business empire.”
Under Cohen’s directorship, the Obama Foundation began the process to construct the Obama Presidential Center, President Obama’s library, in the South Side of Chicago; created fellowships and scholarships for graduate students to attend the University of Chicago and Columbia University; and hosted a two-day “Inaugural Summit“ in 2017 that included 500 high-profile artists, entrepreneurs, and world leaders from 60 nations to conduct what former President Obama called a ”big brainstorming session.” The Foundation also plans to support a so-called Community Leadership Corps, providing a six-month program for 18- to 25-year-olds in civics and leadership.
Also under Cohen, the Obama Foundation has experienced several controversies in its compensation of employees, construction of the presidential library, and lack of transparency in its financing that have led to condemnation from local leaders, over 100 professors from the University of Chicago, environmental activists, and labor unions, among others.
In Cohen’s first year at the Obama Foundation, she volunteered for no salary. From 2015 through 2017, her salary continuously increased: She earned $253,150 in 2015, $512,411 in 2016, and 862,055 in 2017. Cohen is one of 11 people earning a six-figure salary from the Obama Foundation.
The Obama Presidential Center has been in part billed as a community-building effort in a relatively low-income neighborhood. As a result, news of the foundation—and particularly Cohen’s–”skyrocketing executive compensation led to public criticism. Cohen’s salary, critics said, raised =“questions on whether the Presidential Center at Jackson Park, the Foundation’s most significant project, will truly be of public benefit or simply a force for elitism and gentrification on Chicago’s South Side.”
Obama Presidential Center
Cohen has directed the Obama Foundation through a series of controversies surrounding the Obama Presidential Center.
When announcing the choice of Jackson Park in the South Side of Chicago to locate the Obama Presidential Center, the Obama Foundation never mentioned the closure of Cornell Drive, a main thoroughfare through Jackson Park. Only after local residents grew concerned about the possible closure of the six-lane road did Cohen reveal that this controversial idea was in “the original proposal from the University of Chicago.”
Causing further concern, the Obama Foundation announced the intention to include a branch of the Chicago Public Library in its Presidential Center as a way to, according to Cohen, “attract local neighborhood kids” and be a place “where local residents can feel they are a part of the center.” Cohen then confirmed that the city may have to pay rent for the space, saying, “It may not be free.”
Under Cohen’s leadership, the Obama Foundation has also been sued and accused of organizing an “institutional bait and switch,” “a short con shell game, [and] a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab” after appropriating a public park for a Presidential Center that would not operate as a true presidential library. The Obama Presidential Center will not house President Obama’s physical documents and archives.
Cohen’s management of the Obama Foundation has also led to what some describe as a “lack of transparency about contributors” to the foundation. Though the Obama Foundation publicly lists the names of donors on its website, it does not state the amount of gifts, creating instead what critics have called a “system designed to obfuscate.” As a result, there has been “a fundraising bonanza of unknown—and therefore to many suspicious—origin.”