In Obama's Mailbox, Cries for Help From Outside the Beltway

The president tries to stay in touch by reading a selection of the thousands that arrive every day.

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Every weekday, President Obama sits behind his big desk in the Oval Office or settles into a comfortable chair in his East Wing residence and opens a purple folder containing some very important material—10 letters from the outside world. The correspondence is chosen by his staff as a sampling of the 40,000 letters he gets every day. The letters are selected to give him an idea of the public's cares, concerns, suggestions, and critiques of how he's doing.

Sometimes, Obama will read a letter or two during the day, to fill a lull in the seemingly endless series of meetings that dominate a president's schedule. Often, he will take the folder home and peruse the letters at night. He will respond to one or two with handwritten notes. Sometimes, the letters prompt him to inquire about a specific problem or to pass along an interesting idea or poignant story to his policymakers, advisers say. He recently gave senior adviser David Axelrod and other aides copies of a letter from an Arizona woman whose husband lost his job and had to take a big pay cut from his next employer, resulting in the family having serious trouble making mortgage payments. It was a heart-wrenching story that illustrated the pain that Americans are enduring during the economic downturn. "We need to help folks like these," Obama told an aide.

The letter-reading ritual is designed to help Obama stay in touch. Beset by the limits on his time, the security restrictions on where he can go and what he can do, the demands of keeping up with the nuances of policy and legislation, he tells friends that he needs to break out of the "bubble" of isolation that surrounds any president and makes life in the White House so artificial. Bill Clinton once said, "I loved the White House, but even so, once in a while you just need to physically get out of Washington and get back into America and kind of clear your head."

Harry Truman was perhaps the most vivid in describing his circumscribed life, calling the White House the "the great white jail." And if anything, life has gotten even more abnormal for presidents over the years. The walkabouts outside the White House grounds that Truman enjoyed, for example, are no longer considered safe. Given the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the attempts on the lives of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, no one needs to be reminded of the need for strict security.

Still, Obama tries to stay connected. He insisted on keeping his BlackBerry, albeit a very sophisticated one, so his friends and confidants can stay in touch with him and provide unfiltered information about life outside Washington. He regularly plays basketball to preserve some sense of normalcy and to replicate the sports-related camaraderie that he enjoyed before the presidency. Like his predecessors, he tries to take at least one trip a week outside Washington to connect with people beyond the Capital Beltway. He reads newspapers and magazines and keeps up with the polls.

But Obama considers the letters a lifeline. At his health policy summit on Thursday, Obama said he has been moved by the personal stories about healthcare problems; people "have nowhere else to turn" and are "asking me not to forget about them," he said. And while White House officials decline to publicly release the letters, arguing that would violate confidentiality, they summarized a few:

  • The owner of a manufacturing company wrote that he finds it very difficult to lay off employees who have done nothing wrong. He said if things don't improve, he'll have to lay off 10 percent of his workforce. He supports Obama's economic stimulus plan.
  • An elderly woman on a fixed income who is raising a grandchild said she is depressed and scared about making ends meet.
  • A real estate salesperson urged the president to do something about the large number of foreclosed properties.
  • An unemployed truck driver simply pleaded for help.
  • A White House spokesman says the letters are chosen to be "broadly representative of the day's news and issues"—illustrative of trends in the mail, in phone calls to the White House, and in faxes from citizens—and to underscore "messages that are particularly compelling." Up to half of the letters focus on the troubled economy, and that's reflected in the samples chosen for Obama's perusal. Other frequent topics include the environment, education, and foreign affairs.